Are you looking for away to avoid an argument?
Here’s the situation: Amy assumed that she and her husband Jeff would host a large holiday gathering in November, as they always did. Jeff, on the other hand, was hoping for some quiet time, perhaps a vacation just for just the two of them.
He was hesitant to bring it up because he didn’t want to create conflict. But when he came across an opportunity to pick up tickets to Maui at a discount, he went for it.
He hoped that Amy would be as excited as he was. But instead of showering him with appreciation, she blew up. In my work with couples, I hear stories like this all the time.
- Eve wants to find a new job and a slower pace of life outside of the Bay Area, but her partner has a fabulous job and wants to stay put.
- Martin is finally making it as an artist by putting in long hours at art shows and galleries, but his partner is frustrated because he’s rarely home.
The problem with ignoring the problem
The problem isn’t the choices these couples need to make. Balancing opportunities and making difficult choices are a part of life. The problem is that they’re not talking about it. Instead, they postpone important conversations, and then bring up decisions at the last minute, usually in an offhand way, in the hope of avoiding conflict. It doesn’t work.
Here’s the thing: avoiding a problem almost always makes it worse. This might seem counterintuitive at first. You post postpone the conversation. You feel better. What’s the problem with that?
But each time you do it, you’re building an association in your brain: the way to relieve stress is to keep your thoughts to yourself. It creates a temporary feeling of safety. It doesn’t take long for this to become a habit.
A truth about fear (and why it can be hard to avoid an argument)
If you ever played in the ocean, you probably know that diving into a big wave is much better than running from it. Novice swimmers turn their back to the ocean and get flattened. Experienced swimmers dive into the current and keep moving. The same thing happens on an emotional level.
One of my favorite stories is A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin. It’s the story of Ged, a skilled but inexperienced young wizard. On a dare, he accidentally released a frightening andpowerful shadow that left him wounded. When he recovered, he did what seemed only natural – he ran.
But wherever he went, the mysterious shadow pursued him. He realized his mistake only when there was nowhere left to run. The only way out, he realized, was to do the opposite: to seek out what he feared. Ged ultimately realized an important truth: Often the best way to manage fear is to run toward it.
We need to talk…
When it comes to difficult conversations, the best way to avoid an argument is to talk early and often. Of course it doesn’t work to simply say whatever comes to mind. To make sure the discussion is productive, plan the most important details, such as where and when to have the conversation. Here are some guidelines that will help navigate your way through a tricky discussion.
- Be intentional. Choose a time and place to have the conversation. Some bad (but not unusual) times to bring up a difficult topic are: at bedtime when you’re both exhausted; in the morning as you’re rushing out the door; and when you’re partner is trying to get dinner on the table. A good time might be on a Saturday morning when you have an hour or so to spend with each other over a relaxing cup of tea.
- Ask permission. If your goal is to avoid an argument, don’t assume that “anytime” is a good time to talk. Instead, ask. “Hey, I’d like to talk about our holiday plans. I want to hear your thoughts, and I have some ideas I’d like to run by you. How about Saturday morning around 9:00am?”
- Lead with understanding. What does the other person want? How important is it? Why is it so important? What about it is most important? Let go of the outcome and get curious. You’re not making a commitment; you’re getting to know your partner better.
- Ask directly. Don’t try to be indirect in order to avoid an argument – it doesn’t work. Instead, simply offer your point of view. “I know how much family means to you, and how important these gatherings are. I have an idea though, and I’d like to talk it through with you, just to try on a different perspective. What I’ve been wishing for, for the past few months, is quiet time….”
Above all, stay calm. The person you’re talking with isn’t likely to abandon her point of view and take on yours without some serious discussion. Expect some tension, emotion, and even feelings of disappointment. It’s part of the process. You can handle it.
The real treasure
When Ged learned to approach his fear, there was a shift not only in himself, but in the shadow. In a similar way, planning an uncomfortable conversation will shift the nature of the conversation.
As I helped Jeff, Eve, and Martin dive into their conversational dilemmas, they gained the confidence they needed to avoid an argument and stay calm, and they found unexpected common ground with their partners.
Whether the problem is about a holiday gathering, a move, or long hours spent at work, “talking about it” not only led to thoughtful decisions, but also brought new energy into their relationships.
As you learn to approach fear, you’ll get better at handling tricky conversations – a valuable skill at work and home. It will help you learn more about the person you’re talking with, and build your ability to stay calm under stress, and keep conflict to a minimum. As a bonus, you might even get your way.