How To Complain Diplomatically and Argue Constructively Without Fighting: Looking for a Win-Win Situation

Couples who say about themselves "We have a communication problem," "We can't communicate" or "We're always fighting," generally mean that they do not problem-solve effectively. In these couples, a potentially constructive discussion on how to address a thorny problem that they both recognize, or a solution-seeking argument on how to proceed in a specific situation where they know that they disagree, or addressing one person's complaint, quickly deteriorates into a futile—and sometimes ugly—fight. The purpose of this article is to explain how people can:

1. Comfortably express their honest thoughts, feelings or opinions on any matter as well as listen to each other attentively,

2. Make a complaint, discuss sensitive issues, disagree, and even argue their point of view assertively without fighting,

3. Arrive at excellent solutions that are highly satisfactory to both partners, or at least, compromise solutions they can both live with.

4. Change the household atmosphere from a state of tension to one of peace and harmony. Are all these goals really possible? Absolutely!

Three Different Ways of Relating: Cooperate, Fight, Withdraw Dr. Karen Horney, one of Sigmund Freud's famous students, once remarked that people can interact in three modes: cooperate, fight or withdraw. It would seem that in a healthy marriage only the first of these modes of behavior is acceptable: cooperate i.e., interact and stay involved in a constructive, mutually beneficial manner. Although living in peace and harmony with one's spouse in a cooperative and mutually accommodating manner is the goal, some couples live from one fight to another. In extreme cases, they fight frequently over everything and anything; and neither knows when (or over what issue) the next explosion will take place. They live in intermittent or even constant disharmony.

In other cases, the fighting is less frequent but fighting is a constant menace that hovers over them and erupts whenever there is a frustration, disappointment, or difference of opinion. Many individuals have reached a point of exhaustion in their fighting or a sense of futility in their ability to resolve differences to the point that they "swallow their problems" and keep their thoughts to themselves. They avoid raising (even reasonable) complaints, or discussing problems for reasons of self preservation. They see their withdrawal from each other as the only approach they know to avoid fighting. A spouse might say that he/she avoids his /her partner "to save my sanity," "save the peace," or "not make things worse." Unfortunately, sweeping the problem under the rug by avoidance or withdrawal from confrontation is not the answer to the problem(s). Such individuals yearn to live with each other in peace and harmony, but just don't know how to achieve this dream.

A. Characteristics of a Fight & How It Differs From an Argument

1. A Fight is an Argument That Has Gone Awry.

When people express opposing or differing views respectfully, they are arguing. When they are not respectful in their attitude, words, or behavior they have crossed a line:- they are no longer arguing, they are fighting. The fighter might interrupt, raise his voice angrily, over talk, or fail to give his opponent an opportunity to express his point of view. When the fighter does listen, he might do so impatiently, with half an ear, and may be quick to demean, minimize or discount the value of his opponent's facts, feelings or opinions. The fighter might also be sarcastic, insult the other person's intelligence, use verbal or nonverbal techniques (make faces, roll eyes) to express anger, belligerence or disdain.

The attitude of the fighter is "I'm right, you're wrong" and "I know what I'm talking about, you don't." With domineering individuals the attitude is "It's my way or the highway." The fighter is looking to impose his wish upon the other person and is shooting for a win-lose situation.

2. The Nineteen Rules of Engagement For Constructive Arguing

As part of my communication program, I introduce the couple to "The Nineteen Rules of Engagement" for constructive arguing. Arguing is part of the problem-solving process, and therefore an important ingredient in the relationship. People should argue constructively when they have differences about a matter. However, once they violate one of the nineteen rules, they've crossed a line, they are no longer arguing. They have done something hostile and are in the beginning stages of a fight. Even a single violation of the nineteen rules is like taking the ball off the court in sports. You've crossed a line; you're not playing the game anymore.

Learning the Nineteen Rules

In order to sensitize each partner to the nineteen rules of good communication, I have them play the role of husband and wife in a script of two partners driving on a highway and fighting over the husband's driving. I wrote the script to dramatize the nineteen rules. After each spouse's comment, we analyze the violations made by that person. Sometimes a two-word comment can have three violations…and a single statement five or six! The couple is then taught how to say exactly what they "have on their mind" in a non-inflammatory fashion as we "rewrite" the script right there in session. What each person "should have said" at each point in the fight is governed by the list of nineteen desirable behaviors (that are written side-by-side with the nineteen violations). Each spouse has both lists in his hand as we reenact the original script. Couples who go through this experience are amazed at how easy it is to violate the nineteen rules so quick into the complaint/argument. In fact, they frequently identify with the couple in the script in that the complaint/argument that they are dramatizing never saw the light of day. It began as a full-fledged fight. It went from 0-100 in a split second. As we analyze the fight, couples are impressed at how rapidly they become proficient at spotting violations of the "husband" and "wife" whom they are representing, and how easy it is (if you know what to do) to stop the fight cold and get on with the order of business (in this case, the original complaint by the wife about her husband's speeding).

3. Some of the Differences between an Argument and a Fight

In both an argument and a fight two people disagree and in both situations each person would prefer to have his own way. However:

  • In an argument, both people politely state their position, give their reasons or supporting evidence and listen carefully to their partner's explanation of his position. In a fight, they rarely do any of the above.
  • In an argument, both people are open to new ideas and are willing to modify or switch their position. In a fight, the participants are close-minded to new ideas and rigid in their stance.
  • In an argument, the participants are not ego involved with their positions. In a fight they are ego involved.
  • In an argument, there is no battle of wits or a desire to control; in a fight there is.
  • In an argument, both parties focus on the problem to be solved. There is a willingness to explore the situation as thoroughly as possible and a desire to come up with a solution that is agreeable to both parties. The goal is win-win.
  • The above-mentioned factors are absent in a fight where the desire is to shove one's opinion down the other person's throat. The goal is win-lose.
  • In an argument, the participants may attack the other person's position or logic but show respect for each other. In a fight, the participants interrupt, put each other down, minimize their partner's feelings or opinions, and show disrespect in many different ways.
  • An argument is actually a bonding activity and enhances the relationship. A fight diminishes the relationship.
  • After an argument, both contestants are at peace with each other, and glad that they have either solved the problem or at least have agreed upon a working formula. They are friendly and happy with each other. They have no fear of tackling future problems.
  • After a fight, both contestants are frustrated, disappointed and alienated. They may also be and hurt, and surely angry because of what was said (and because of what should have been said, but was not). And for all their time, effort and energy not only has nothing has been solved but they are worse off now than they were when they began.
  • As a consequence of the negative feelings engendered by a fight both individuals are less likely to compromise or accommodate each other when the next problem arises. Worse, they are wary of addressing new problems. Some fights end when one person gives in (perhaps because of sheer exhaustion, a sense of futility, or a fear that the fight will get worse) ...the winner takes all, and the matter is closed. This is not good.
  • In a marriage—or any friendly relationship, the goal should always be win-win. A win-lose situation is equal to a lose-lose situation.

 

B. The Important Role of an Argument in Relationships

1. Salient features of an Argument

A constructive or friendly argument is characterized by a respectful exchange of ideas by people who differ on how to identify or address a problem. Each person tries to convince his partner that he is right by logical presentation of credible evidence including facts, logical reasons, past personal experiences, reports from people who have solved similar problems, expert opinions or recommendations from reliable sources etc to justify his point of view. This is good. There is nothing wrong with believing that you are right, nor in pushing your point of view by respectful attempts to put forth your reasons for your position so as to win over your partner to your point of view.

In many situations, personal preferences rather than logical justifications are placed on the scale. In such cases, this should be clearly stated, weighed in by the partner with respect and care as an emotional factor quite apart from logic and reason. In a friendly argument neither partner is glued to his position and both listen carefully to their opponent's views. Both have open minds and are willing to be convinced that their position should be modified or even abandoned. Most importantly, friendly arguers are not ego involved in getting their way, but are looking for a solution to the problem that is agreeable to both, i.e., a win-win situation.2. Arguing is Good

Unfortunately arguments between individuals, especially between people who are related, live with each other, or are otherwise emotionally involved tend to become heated and deteriorate into fights. Consequently, the word argument has taken on negative connotations in our culture. When a person says, "I don't want to argue" he really means, "I don't want to fight." But in fact, people can argue without fighting. Webster defines "argument" simply as "a debate or discussion in which there is disagreement." The word has no negative connotations. When working with couples, I explain that the word refers to an exchange of ideas by people who differ in their opinions; there is no reason why arguments cannot be friendly. When an argument is used as a tool by spouses to solve their problems or resolve their differences, it can be a most constructive and solution seeking behavior. Consequently, whenever there is a difference of opinion an argument is a good thing to have. How else can people solve their differences? An argument is good; (a fight is bad).

3. The Need to Argue, The Importance of Arguing, The Beauty of Arguing

Since it is most unlikely that that two people will have the exact same opinion on everything, and each person usually wishes to further his point of view (and is entitled to do so), arguments are inevitable and indeed helpful. In a solution-seeking argument, both people will emerge with more knowledge about the subject discussed than before the argument began and might be glad (or even grateful) that they were exposed to contrary facts and alternate solutions. After a good argument the couple may arrive at a solution which both agree is better than the original position of each person. At worst, each person may still believe that his own original position is excellent, but since his partner opposes that approach, the couple will arrive at a solution that is acceptable to both. When an argument ends, especially a good long one that may have dragged on for days weeks or even months, both parties may be weary but they are satisfied and are on friendly terms with each other. The final plan, solution or decision will have been arrived at jointly, perhaps laboriously, but at least peacefully and with good will.

 

C. Example of an Argument

Arguments can include topics that are mundane, sublime, or ridiculous. Many couples are "equal opportunity" arguers (or fighters) and will do so at the drop of a hat. Below is an example of an argument in a matter that is limited in scope with no history of previous fights or negative feelings. Let's explore the characteristics of an argument and the various possibilities that might take place.

1. Both Spouses Express Their Views and Give Their Reasons

A couple agrees to take their vacation at a hotel but disagree as to which hotel. In an argument (as distinct from a fight) both spouses listen to each other's point of view, and their reasons for making that choice. In this case, husband argues for hotel "A" because he likes the golf course on campus; and wife argues for hotel "B" because she likes their spa, steam room and pool.

Wife might try to entice husband to her hotel by reminding him of her hotel's excellent tennis instructor, and husband might entice wife to his hotel by reminding her of the ballroom dancing program at his preferred hotel.

2. Both Spouses Are Open to Their Mate's Objections or Counterarguments

This argument can play out in a number of ways. Let's start with scenario one. When wife reminds husband of the mosquito problem they had previously experienced at his preferred hotel, and husband reminds wife of the poor food problem they had both experienced at her preferred hotel, they both admit the accurateness of their spouses objection to their preferred hotel, willingly give up their original positions, and jointly choose hotel "C." They are both happy that they had the argument because they are now better off than they would have been had they not exchanged their views and learned (in this case: were reminded about something they had forgotten) about the weakness of their original position.

 

Of course, many problems that couples face are much more complicated than this, but the basic principles stand. When people express their position, give their reasons for it, and are open to information from their partner they will sometimes learn the weaknesses of their own position (in this case the mosquitoes or the poor food), and at other times learn the strength of their opponent's position (tennis instruction, ballroom dancing). In the end, they will weigh all the pros and cons and will generally end up with a solution that is better than their original choice.

2. Both Spouses Are Open to a Rebuttal of Their Counterargument

(Scenario Two) When husband counters that the mosquito problem was last August and their proposed trip is in December, wife drops her objection. When wife counters that the food problem no longer exists because her friend reported that wife's preferred hotel has a new chef and the food is excellent, husband drops his objection. Both show an open mind for a counter argument to their original objection.

3. Each Spouse is Willing to Accommodate the Other

(Scenario Three) What happens now? Since both hotels are now back in the running, and neither spouse has an objection to the other's preference, the situation presents the couple with an excellent opportunity for accommodation and demonstration of a desire to please. For example, the husband might say: I know how important the spa and steam room is to you, so let's go to your hotel and I don't mind driving ten minutes to the nearest golf course.

Or the wife might say: I know how much you enjoy "A's" golf course and since they have a good spa and a nice swimming pool, I'll forego the steam room this time. In this scenario, the person who was selfless did so on his own initiative and both partners are comfortable with the decision. The accommodating spouse has built up good will.

4. Spouses Seek Out and Agree Upon a Compromise Position

(Scenario four) For whatever complicated reasons each person still wants to go to the hotel of his choice and neither person will accept the other person's choice. Since this is an argument, and not a fight, they are both looking for a solution. They want to go on vacation with each other, so they both reluctantly give up their first choice and settle on "C." In this situation, their final choice "C" is less preferable than their original choice, but it is a solution they can both live with. Although somewhat disappointed for not getting their way, both are happy that they solved the problem and there are no hard feelings.

5. Exceptions to the Rule

Understandably, the example cited above is fairly straightforward and comparatively easy. Many of life's problems are considerably more complicated and do not lend to easy solutions. Further, in some situations, feelings ride high because of the chronic nature of the problem to be solved or past hurts and lingering feelings of resentment for having been ignored, hurt or angered in the past by the spouse (or by a previous partner, or even by a parent). Understandably, adding negative emotional components to the argument complicates matters.

At other times, a person may have personal preferences that have nothing to do with logic or reason. In fact the "reasons" presented are rationalizations to support his position but not the real motivation behind his choice. In such a case, the individual should clearly bring this fact out into the open and delineate the hidden agenda behind his argument rather than just push forth "reasons" to support his point of view.

Yes, there are exceptions to the structure of an argument as presented here, and many arguments will experience unexpected twists and turns, but the principles described above generally hold. If both people are honestly looking for a solution and treat each other respectfully, and ideas are exchanged with an open mind, a solution is usually found. It is also true that in some cases the couple has no choice but to "agree to disagree." In such a case, the decision should be postponed. If a lot of time has elapsed, and the decision can no longer be postponed, then the agreed upon solution may end up favoring one person. However, every attempt should be made to keep the other person as happy as possible. And the person who gave in now has "money in the bank" and can draw on this the next time the couple is involved in a hotly contested decision.

Hope For The Future

Clearly unresolved differences between spouses result in frustrations, annoyances and disappointments, which spawn a more painful layer of emotions and attitudes including ill will, bitterness, anger, and depression. These emotions set the stage for feelings of futility and hopelessness, indifference to the partner's happiness, and even feelings of revenge (if he could hurt me by doing "X," I could hurt him by doing "Y"). This type of thinking initiates a vicious cycle and a spiraling downward into even more negative couple interactions.

This situation can be remedied. In an overwhelming majority of cases couples who fight, can—and do—transform old habits and adopt new patterns of behavior within a reasonable period of time. In fact, I am no longer surprised at how many couples dramatically change the climate of their household after a few sessions by scrupulously adhering to the nineteen rules, by playing the role of referee or umpire (as I instruct them to do) and calmly "blowing the whistle" (rather than counterattack) when their partner takes the ball off the court by violating one of the accepted rules of engagement.

Stopping the Vicious Cycle & Initiating a Benign Cycle

Understandably, treating each other with respect is only the first step. Respect during an argument or when one person airs a complaint may stem the slippery slope from argument to fight, but respect in itself does not solve the problem(s). However, a respectful approach to the feelings and opinions of one's partner does create a benign atmosphere and a safe forum for addressing the underlying problem(s). Thus a new spirit of cooperation and friendliness takes hold and sets the stage for the more difficult steps that must be taken to address the various negative behaviors, harmful interactions and underlying relationship deficits that must be modified.

As we begin resolving these underlying problems, we reduce the secondary consequences of those problems, viz., the hurt, disappointment, ill will, anger, etc. and the other negative emotions enumerated above. We have now stopped the vicious cycle and have begun a benign cycle. The cycle of resentment and indifference—or worse, anger and spite which elicits more negative behavior or separation and indifference gives way to a spirit of mutual concern, cooperation and bonding. Changing the mode of interaction from fighting to cooperating brings the couple so much closer to their goals of living in peace, harmony and love with each other. It can be done!