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How to Argue - Part II

We began by discussing how we create pain and separation in relationships by avoiding conflicts until it explodes in boundary violating, alienating communication that shatters the development of intimacy.  Remembering that we hurt most, those we love the most, we discussed how essential it is that the development and continuation of intimacy involves continuing mutual recognition that each partner means well by the other. This requires active, moment to moment communication of experience in a never ending effort to maintain a shared experience of reality.

Rules of Engagement

This is a quick, highly distilled, course in the essentials of communication skills, and basic assertiveness training.  We all appreciate it when someone communicates what we want to hear, but remember that natural boundaries are defined as the friction points between where one person's experience ends and another person's experience begins.  The only way we can expect to have a continuing shared reality is the constant negotiation of experience.  This is what we mean when we talk about arguing to make clear. With enough motivation and courage, the following rules of engagement can revitalize a relationship and return a couple to a path of true intimacy.  Not only that, the principles discussed here will improve the communication in all relationships. 

Immediacy of communication is essential; don’t collect feelings. Moment to moment communication is exactly that. Allow yourself to maintain awareness of what you are feeling and what you are thinking and commit yourself to sharing these perceptions with your partner as they arise. 

Authenticity is essential.  Remember that there are no wrong feelings.  It is our responses to our feelings that could be wrong, if communicated inappropriately in a way that violates boundaries.  Likewise, our thoughts constitute a large portion of our personal reality.  The only way we can determine if our thoughts have any grounding in reality is to share our perceptions in a way that seeks a reality check with our partner.

Establish whether your partner means well, or is acting from good intentions.  This is one of the most challenging and critical rules of engagement.  When emotions are intense and words are flying, it may be hard to believe that the one who professes to love you so much really cares at all.  Often, there are layers and layers of conflict and pain to which partners are responding, but in many cases, there remains a deep down desire for a close and intimate relationship. With enough courage, mutual discipline in using appropriate communication skills and patience, couples really can work their way down through those sedimentary layers of pain to find the bedrock of their original intimacy.

Meanwhile, there are rules by which you can make an initial determination as to whether your partner means well and is acting, or intending to act, from a place of good intentions.  First, your partner is not verbally or physically abusive. 

Nobody deserves verbal or physical abuse.

It is normal for voices to be raised, occasionally, in anger.  However, verbal rage, name-calling and personal verbal attacks are considered abusive.  (Verbal or physical abuse is never acceptable and should never be tolerated.) Second, your partner respects your boundaries (see below).  Third, your partner is willing to engage your concerns, in an authentic and sincere way, using appropriate communication skills in an effort to resolve conflict.  Remember, in all ways, it is essential that you act from good intentions in relation to your partner.  Again, the Golden Rule applies. 

Always, always respect boundaries.  Our culture teaches us communication that often violates boundaries, frequently in many subtle ways.  Not only do we get so involved in our own concerns that we sometimes fail to observe and listen, we can run roughshod over the needs and interests of others by that failure.  We can correct much of this problem by correcting our communication. 

Briefly, we tend to speak in “you” messages, where we project our perceptions onto others as interpretations and accusations.  Especially, when we are angry, we may do this with a question and a superlative like “always” or “never.”  For example, when we are asked, “Why are you always late?”  we feel accused and demanded of for an explanation.  The implication is that we did not mean well by our behavior. Most destructive arguments include “you – you – you – you,” over and over again, back and forth, with nobody really listening! So called “you” messages are a boundary violation.  Forget “you.” Begin your communication with “I” and share your experience.

Communicate your experience and you will never be wrong. So much of our negative communication comes from our fears that our loved ones do not mean well by us or will not behave according to our expectations.  At least, there are many occasions in which we may not agree with those most dear to us.  Once we project our concerns onto others through the “you” messages, we wind up in destructive arguments over who is right and who is wrong in what really amounts to a battle of perceptions!  There is a solution for that. 

Always communicate your experience.  Not your partner’s experience.  Not your partner's intentions.  If intimacy is about negotiating a shared reality in a loving space, then we must begin with communicating from our own experience.  This is sometimes called communicating in “I” messages.  The easiest way to learn this?  Especially when engaging in tense communication, try beginning your communication by starting with “I” and finish your sentence by sharing your experience.  Not only will you accurately share your concerns from the basis of your reality (the only reality you can be sure of), but you'll find that you will never be wrong by  sharing your perceptions of your experience.  Further, you will not be violating another's boundaries by challenging their intentions and their behavior.  Rather than being put off by another “you” message, a person of good intentions will feel invited to respond in kind to your communication.  That is, if they share your level of courage.

Express your needs; reflect your partner’s. Successful communication very often begins with a sharing of perceptions.  If there is confusion about perceived intentions, the need for a reality check may be in order.  It is much more constructive to communicate something like, "I feel really attacked right now,” as opposed to, "you don't have to be such a ____!"  Once mutual perceptions are clear, a successful interaction will naturally move toward a sharing of needs.  Not only is it important to share our own needs, but we must listen to the needs of our partner and respond in a way that communicates our perception of our partner’s experience and needs. We give back what we hear our partner saying by reflecting their thoughts and feelings.  Called active listening, this approach is especially successful in communicating empathy and building intimacy.

Argue for the relationship to win. Winning an argument is one of the worst things that can happen.  Our culture teaches us that we should argue to win for ourselves.  Being right does not solve problems, nor create intimacy.  Being wrong, only leads to the experience of alienation.  It should be remembered that there are always three entities in a marriage: the husband, a wife, and the marriage itself.  A couple knowledgeable and disciplined with respect to good communication will always argue for the relationship to win.  With this mindset, a whole new energy is brought into negotiating a conflict.  Keeping this principle in mind, the stage is set for all the other elements of communication to be on the right track.   

Confrontation with empathy is an act of grace. Appropriate communication can bring us to this place.  When we have the courage to really listen (inwardly and outwardly) and to express ourselves in an authentic way, we will perceive our partner from a place of compassion -- even if we do not initially understand their behavior or intentions. From this grounding, we can share our reality in terms of confronting our partner with our perceptions.  It is a tremendous gift to have somebody in our life who has the courage to share their authentic perceptions of our behavior and its potential consequences.  It is up to us, or our partner, depending upon who is receiving the communication, to receive such feedback with grace and the courage to make whatever changes are necessary.

Continued at: How to Argue - Part III   Next:  More Rules of Engagement 

Granville Angell   © 02/2007 

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC, is a local counselor and author of The God-Shaped Hole – A Story of Comfort for The Child in All of Us. Contacts: angell(AT)transitions-counseling.com, TRANSITIONS , at 704-276-1164; web site: www.transitions-counseling.com, where you can read prior articles.

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