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Anatomy of an Argument: How to Prevent Conflict and Polarization

Anatomy of an Argument

Dr. Rick Brinkman, one of the bestselling masterminds who wrote Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, explains how to avoid conflict and be a better communicator.

With all the polarization in the world it’s easy to feel helpless, but the good news is you’re not! That’s because peace begins with our relationships and especially our relationships with the people we can’t stand, (or whom we usually love and sometimes can’t stand). This post will tune your attention to a way you can exit conflict, and even better avoid conflict in the first place. In the days and weeks to come, you will find that when you master this skill, you will save yourself a ton of trouble.

A disagreement, (or in its more heated form, an argument or in its group consciousness form, a war), is two people who want to be understood at the same time but neither is able to do it. They co-create in each other an emotional reaction to feeling not listened to or understood. One of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to put aside what you have to say and let people “feel” understood first. The challenge is, if you are in an argument wanting badly to be understood, the last thing you want to do is put aside what you have to say and focus on the other person. However, when you focus on the other person first, you’ll find it is the quickest route to avoid conflict and prevent an argument because when people feel understood, the doors of their mind open!

Let’s take a look at the anatomy of an argument between John and Mary. While Mary is stating her point of view, John is trying his best to keep a lid on his desire to interrupt her, even though in his mind, she is so obviously wrong. He waits for Mary to pause for breath; then he blurts out what he has to say on the subject. At this moment Mary will not feel listened to or understood.

This is because of three behaviors. Number one there was no acknowledgement of what Mary said. Number two, he also didn’t ask questions to find out more. And to make matters worse, number three, he didn’t even allow enough of a pause for her to continue if she had more to say.

At this point Mary then might suppress her feelings about that and lets John continue. However, she is really just waiting for John to get through saying what he has to say. Once he stops for air, she repeats what she said earlier, still trying to make the point she doesn’t feel like he heard the first time. Now John has no indicators that he has been listened to or understood. And to inflame him even more he is now hearing the same stuff from Mary that he already heard.

He tries to patiently let her say her piece but finally he can’t wait any longer, interrupts her and repeats his first point. Now she feels she hasn’t been heard twice and worse has been interrupted. The cycle will continue with the interruptions between them coming even faster.

While they are supposedly “listening” they are really only listening for what is wrong with what the other person is saying and/or preparing what they have to say next. As the cycle continues, emotions will flair not only from the subject they are talking about, but also from the fact that they are “feeling” interrupted, not listened to and frustrated. Eventually they will take the conversation personally and can start to bring in issues with each other that don’t even relate to the present topic.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a Conscious Communicator, you approach communication knowing what you want, paying attention to the dynamic and being flexible. Once you know how to start and maintain an argument, you also hold the key to the way out of the cycle or even better, how to prevent it. The trick is you have to be strong enough to temporarily put aside what you have to say and really focus in on the other person. This is one of the most important communication skills you can develop, the ability to let the other person feel understood first. Think of it like a muscle. You need to work it out and it will get stronger and easier over time.

People usually get the feeling of being understood from a few behaviors. It begins with just letting the other person talk and while they do you give them meaningful looks and occasional grunts. You know you are complete with this phase when people repeat themselves. Take repetition as a sign that people need feedback. The best kind of feedback to give them is backtracking. That is when you say back what they say to you. Try not to change their words because their actual words are meaningful to them. Backtracking lets a person know you have listened. Then ask questions to find out more. When you ask questions to find out more it shows you care about understanding what they are saying. When you put listening and caring together this is what gives people the feeling of being understood.  Occasionally summarizing what the person said is also helpful. Two things happen when you summarize: the other person gets confirmation that you have been paying attention, and they fill in the blanks in terms of what they want to tell you.

To transition to what you want to say, summarize what you have heard so far and then finish with a confirmation question like “Anything else?” or “Do you feel like I understand?”. Once they agree, it will be easy to lead them to hear what you have to say. That’s because when people feel understood the doors to their mind swing wide open.

If you ever find yourself already caught up in an argument, the way to exit is by giving the other person exactly what you want. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling and what do I want?”. Then say it to them, “Are you feeling not listened to and misunderstood?”. This will probably stop them in their tracks. Then continue, “It must be hard to be with someone like me who seems so closed minded.” Next say, “I really would like to understand. Let’s take it from the top.”. Then focus on them as a Conscious Communicator. Congratulations, you just stopped a war. Way to go!

In the days to come, no doubt you will find someone who doesn’t seem to want to listen to you. Challenge yourself to open their mind by first focusing on them.

Good luck!

To read more from Dr. Rick Brinkman, check out his popular book, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand.
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Anatomy of an Argument: How to Prevent Conflict and Polarization

Dr. Rick Brinkman is the coauthor of the international bestseller Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, which has been translated into 25 languages. His new book, Dealing with Meetings You Can’t Stand, How to Meet Less and Do More is available now. He is a top keynote speaker and trainer on leadership, teamwork, customer service, effective meetings, difficult people, and managing multiple priorities.