drwex (drwex) wrote,

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In a month of posting, day 7

Every relationship has its first argument; some don't survive it.

The Monty Python "Argument Clinic" sketch is famously a parody of consumerist culture - the notion that one can go and buy anything. It's also a satire on the idea that you can have rules for having an argument. It's sometimes used as an example of brute contradiction, rather than an actual argument. Here I'd like to talk about my rules for having an actual argument with me. This post is full of strong opinions.

My rules have been heavily influenced by my life experiences and by a most excellent trio of books: Getting to Yes, Difficult Conversations, and Getting Past No. If you have not read these books, get them. They are the most concise, readable, and evidence-based set of writings I've ever encountered around these topics. The first book sets out a strategy for achieving an end result that leaves everyone at least satisfied. The second talks about why we avoid certain conversations and topics we ought to discuss. The third has ideas for how to behave when the other people in the conversation/argument aren't willing to play by the rules or don't seem to have good cooperative intentions.

1. No arguing after midnight. This is in opposition to those who say "never go to bed mad." That rule ends up being contorted into staying in the argument past when a timeout is needed. It makes more sense to go to bed mad, get some form of rest (even if one of us has to sleep on the couch) and then continue to try to resolve things when better rested. People who stay in the argument because they don't want to go to bed mad end up generating pressure and agreeing to things just to get out of the situation rather than because they're making an agreement they actually want to keep. Then you end up feeling resentful because you've been forced, resentful at the agreements you made, and the argument cycles around or up again. Or you do something that sabotages the agreement.

Midnight is an arbitrary time. Some arguments start after midnight; sometimes you go to bed before midnight. But it's a time that symbolizes the idea that it's more valuable to bring your best self than it is to reach resolution right away.

2. All emotions are valid. This is in opposition to saying "Don't be mad at me" or similar attempts to regulate the feelings of the people you're arguing with. Arguing is often about anger - you can and will fight when you're white hot with fury as well as when you are in calm and rational states. It may be that you get better outcomes from a calmer state, but nobody has the right to tell you that you have to be there. Anger, hurt, defensiveness, jealousy, bitterness, guilt - they're not pleasant emotions but they're valid. So are generosity, compassion, and other more likable emotions. It may be that you don't want the other person to have a particular response to what you say in the argument but you can't control that. The others' responses are valid and need to be respected.

Related to this, I reject the notion of "thoughtcrime." What I think is my own business and however reprehensible my thoughts may be so long as they stay in my head that's it. "I know what you were thinking when you looked at her," may well be true but so what. Either I did or said something (including leering/staring - acts of looking can be problematic, but are still acts) or I did not. And if I didn't please don't argue with me about what's in my head.

3. Try to speak in "I" sentences. The difference between "You are cheating on me" and "It looks to me like you're cheating on me" is vast, and important. Some "I" sentences are terrible and hard to hear, but they beat the alternatives. "I" sentences help avoid passive-aggressiveness and they require ownership. "I" sentences are hard in arguments because we want to talk about the things that have upset us, that have contributed to the argument, and those are often naturally formed in terms of things the other person has done or said. You did this, you said that. True statements though they may be, it's not the statements that matter - it's their effect. "I'm angry because you were an ass to my sister." If I did not like my sister, or thought she deserved it, the effect might be different. "I'm embarrassed that you brought up politics at the company dinner." Often a person cannot undo what has been done or said. What they can do is understand its effects and try to make amends. Speaking in "I" sentences helps focus the argument on the important effects. If I'm arguing with you, then you're important to me. If you were not, I'd not take the time to argue.

4. Don't drag in third parties. If you're arguing with me, arguments of the form "my friends say that..." aren't kosher. If your friends want to argue with me, let them. This is particularly tricky in poly situations where you may well be arguing about a third person who isn't present. Here I try to divide the problem. I may say, "I feel like OTHERPERSON is enticing you to break our agreements" - that's my problem with you. Separately, I may have to argue with OTHERPERSON about their behavior that I think is pushing boundaries. But your listening to or acting on OTHERPERSON's enticements is a problem I have with you. If we find we're arguing with people who aren't in the room then the argument is unlikely to resolve.

5. Expecting me to be a mind-reader is a short road to misery on both our parts. Staring at me in fuming silence expecting me to intuit why you're angry is pointless. I might guess, or I might not - either way it's a terrible way to argue with me. If I've done something to upset you then I am likely oblivious to why. If I've figured it out then we're probably past the arguing stage and into the "apologizing and trying to make amends" stage. I'm not much better at mind-reading there, but this is a post about arguing with me and arguing with me when I'm trying to understand what you're on about is likely a lot less useful. This is not the same thing as silence. Sometimes people aren't ready to talk or argue or need their space or are just fuming. Those are all valid (see point 2) and if I can't cope with that, well that's my own look-out. Just don't expect me to read your mind.

6. Be able to go meta. "Why are we having this argument?" is possibly the most important question of any argument. One of the things Getting to Yes talks about is the shared understandings necessary for agreements to be real. If you and I think we're arguing for different reasons, or about different things, then we may end up spiraling back into argument when we thought it was settled because what got settled was not what the argument was actually about. This can seem strange at first, but after a while you realize that people argue over things that aren't the real argument. We fight over whose turn it is to do the dishes when in fact the problem is that you feel I'm sticking you with the majority of the chores. We fight over whether I'm putting enough energy into the relationship when in fact the problem is you don't like my new girlfriend.

Being unable to articulate why doesn't invalidate feelings of anger or upset that may have led to this argument (see again point 2). People argue for all kinds of crazy and irrational reasons. Or argue when they're not sure why they're having this argument but know they're upset enough to argue. It happens, I deal. But if you and I can figure out why we're having this argument then I can build some confidence we're addressing the same things and we can have a different argument next time.

(This post was surprisingly difficult to write. I usually get around these problems by couching my language in "I think" and similar contextual phrasing. That's not something I wanted to do here - instead I wanted to convey some of my strongly held beliefs and yet be as clear and non-confrontational as I could be. I suppose if there's any value in the Day N series it will be in how it challenges me.)
Tags: thinky stuff
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