How to Stop Arguing and Shift to More Productive Dialogue

Nathan Cobb

By Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.

Have you and your spouse ever found yourselves in an endless-loop argument that does not go anywhere? You say one thing and then your spouse counters with an opposite statement. You repeat what you said the first time, and then your spouse repeats what he or she already said. You present additional evidence to back up your side, and then your spouse shoots it down or presents counter evidence.

These back-and-forth debates can go on for a long time. You both end up feeling drained, frustrated, unheard and angry. And nothing has gotten resolved.

Does this sound familiar?

Ever wonder how to stop arguing in such a pointless way?

Here's one way. Whenever you find yourself in this endless loop, stop making statements, and, instead, begin to ask some questions.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself or your spouse is, "What do you want to get out of this dialogue? What is your desired outcome here?"

If you ask your spouse this question, you will probably get stunned silence at first. When I ask couples this question, often neither partner really knows the answer until they start to dig deep and think about what they want.

We often don't stop and think about what outcome we want. We just react. We get so caught up in the details of the argument - in the seduction of being right - that we lose sight of the issue.

This may sound harsh, and it isn't my intention to sound harsh, but at the end of the day it often doesn't matter what you said a week ago or what you thought you said or what you heard your partner say or what you thought you heard. You and your spouse are different people and you hear and see different things depending on your frame of mind at the time, your circumstances, your biology and your history of interactions with others.

What really matters is the issue. What is it that you want to accomplish out of the discussion you are having now? What do you want to achieve?

Once you identify your wants, then the next step is to think about why that "want" matters to you, not for the reason that you have to justify your wants, but so that your spouse can understand you better.

If it can be hard for you to know what you want out of the discussion, then imagine how hard it is for your partner to guess what you want. Sometimes we forget that our spouse cannot read our minds. We cling to the wish that someone would intuitively know us and understand us and be able to meet our needs without our having to put much effort into defining ourselves.

It takes conscious thought and reflection to know what you want and to articulate why you want it or why it matters to you. Once you do begin to think about and articulate your answers to these questions, however, your dialogue will become more productive. You'll find it easier to avoid wasting time in reactive debates.

Instead, you'll be able to pinpoint the real issue and come away from the discussion with a better understanding of each other, which, in turn, will help you work better as a team to accomplish your relationship goals.

So the next time you find yourself in a circular argument on the road to nowhere, stop and re-orient yourself by asking, "What do you want out of this discussion?" and "Why is that important to you?"



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