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5 tips for making arguments less scary

by Supriya Venkatesan

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Unless you’ve somehow become the least polarizing person on Earth, you’ve probably gotten into an argument or two in the recent past. And during that argument, you probably thought you were right and they were wrong. So you huffed and you puffed and blew the whole relationship down. You might have patched things up and moved on, but another fight might be lurking in your future.

According to neuroscience research, 98 percent of people are wired with the ability to empathize. (The remaining two percent include those with psychopathic personalities.) But when conflict occurs, it’s easy to forego this inherent human skill.

Here are some steps to tap into empathy during your next confrontation. By cultivating empathy you will not only grow in your relationship but also toward your most actualized self. Maybe you will realize that both parties can be right, and both parties can be wrong, all at the same time.

The gift of attention

During a fight, we are often caught up with our own thoughts, our monkey minds are doing double time on the inner treadmill and it isn’t fully in tune with the other person. Next time you find yourself in this pattern, try pausing, taking a breath, and centering your awareness on the other person by looking into their eyes.

Center yourself by pausing, taking a breath and put your awareness on the other person. Neurophysiologist Simon Baron-Cohen discovered that humans have an uncanny ability to discern the emotion in others’ eyes, in photographs as much as in person. If we spend time eye-reading often, we can increase our emotional IQ and become more empathetic, more often.

But don’t just look, also listen. According to the Nonviolent Communication process, radical listening is also hugely impactful. When we listen to others, we’re more likely to reach a resolution and feel understood. Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Nonviolent Communication, discovered that conflict resolution can be reached 50 percent faster during an employer-employee dispute if both sides repeat what the other person has said before expressing their own opinions.

Examine your priorities

Is it more important to be correct in one instance or to maintain the strength of a relationship over time? During a fight, it’s so easy to feel caught in a power struggle, but remember that you and the other person are in a relationship—whether it’s personal or professional—and in many ways, you are both on the same team. Take a hard look at your own thoughts, and try to understand why the other person holds certain beliefs, whether you agree or not, definitely acknowledge and validate their thoughts. You can accept and respect someone without having to agree on their beliefs. But remember that even when you agree it’s important to not lose sight of your own boundaries and needs.

That’s touching

If you are arguing with a romantic partner or someone very close to you, try holding hands while talking. While you might be angry, getting physical may give magnitude to the bond—and not to the current issues. Moving physically closer together (if your companion is receptive) will literally bridge the distance. Touch leads to an increase in the happy hormone serotonin, and higher serotonin levels have been linked with an increase in empathy.

Talking bodies

When we mirror another person’s body language, we immediately build trust and rapport. Usually, when we like someone, we unconsciously copy nonverbal behavior. To choose to do this consciously creates the same effect; during mirroring, our brains fire neurons in the same pattern as the person we are mirroring, creating a kind of group harmony, which and leads to greater empathy. This technique is so effective that it’s often used in business settings.

Triggers and patterns

Lastly, if you find yourself getting into conflict often, keep a log to find patterns of possible triggers. We all have triggers, and if we can learn to be more conscious of them, we may be better able to avoid a confrontation altogether.

The best way to grow in empathy and diffuse tensions is to utilize these empathetic tools even when we are not fighting. So be more aware of your habits in—and out—of conflict.


Illustration by JING WEI

Supriya Venkatesan

Supriya Venkatesan is a freelance writer, teacher and unapologetic change agent. When not busy conquering the world you can find her at the nearest Teavana drinking too many samples of tea or working on her memoir based on her deployment to Iraq with the US Army.