The Chemistry of an Argument

I thoroughly enjoy a good verbal back and forth with someone. Honest disagreements are fantastic, especially if there is a chemistry to the exchange. I have a few coworkers that allow me to present alternative opinions to them. If the topic is something I’ve given even a smidgen of thought to I tend to dialog at practically a stream of conscience speed. I’m not necessarily overrunning the person(s) I’m talking to, it’s just that I can anticipate what they are going to say, and vice versa. Just about everyone has these friendly debates. And sometimes unfriendly ones.

And that is what my post is about. Sometimes, emotions run high. It could be a topic someone, for whatever personal reason, has an attachment to or it could be that something happened that incites a reaction. In these situations you can still find a chemistry, but it’s usually one of escalating negative behavior – raising voices, to insults, to potentially physical abuse. What is important to consider during these incidents is to intentionally break the rhythm of the discourse. Pausing for a moment and breaking up the cadence of the tit for tat will pay off.

Peter Bregman over to calls this The Martial Art of Difficult Conversations. He had a situation arise where his neighbor was steamed at him and his wife. They had her son’s car towed. It wasn’t vindictive or anything, they were just in a bind. Bregman wasn’t the one who answered the door, so he was able to think while his wife was engaged in the back and forth of who was in the wrong. Here is what Bregman did and suggest for others:

Meanwhile, I had a brief moment to consider the best way to rescue Eleanor. I had to diffuse Leslie’s anger, otherwise we’d never get anywhere. The only way to do that was to give Leslie the experience of being heard. Once she felt we understood her point of view and appreciated how angry she was, she’d calm down. Then we could talk.

I decided to do three things that, together, communicate listening:

  1. Ask questions. I would ask open ended, exploratory questions. Who, what, when, where,how, why, etc. Questions that would clarify what she was saying and feeling. Questions that would help me unpack the situation from her perspective. I would stay away from leading questions and statements that pretended to be questions but wouldn’t fool anyone, like “You don’t actually believe that, do you?”
  2. Actually listen. I would shut up and hear what she had to say. And I would avoid thinking about anything except what she was saying. I would also try to hear what she wasn’t saying but was implying, the desires, fears, and assumptions that were behind what she was saying.
  3. Repeat and summarize.I would recap what I heard, trying to use the same words she did. I would also summarize what I heard and check with her to see if I understood her correctly. If she told me I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t ask her to repeat herself because, well, she would and I’d hear the whole thing over again. What I really wanted to know is what I got wrong. So I’d ask her what I missed. Once she told me, I’d repeat that part again and ask her if I got it right this time.

Most importantly, I wouldn’t bother to defend our decision until her anger was diffused. And I picked a sign for myself: once she took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders, I’d make my point.

It’s great to debate ideas, viewpoints, and opinions, but there are times when the chemistry can be destructive. A simple pause can help you to always keep it positive.

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