Presented live May 20, 2017 by Lauren Schifferdecker, MA, LCPC, NCC
There is a secret to winning arguments that can save precious time and spreading love and connection in a world that desperately needs it.
Two things are true of all arguments big or small. One: we all have them. Two: we all want to be right.
So what are we arguing about? Relationship experts say—nothing. We argue about ridiculous things, like who’s turn it is to unload the dishwasher, because our arguments are really representing deeper issues happening beneath the surface.
I am a clinical psychotherapist, so I professionally help people navigate arguments in successful and meaningful ways. In other words, I’m a well-paid referee.
Today, I’d like to share with you a secret to winning these arguments that can help—not only change the dynamic of our arguments—but also bring more love and connection into our relationships.
In order to do that, I need to tell you a personal story about a ridiculous argument from one of my most regular clients: Myself.
One of the biggest arguments I’ve ever had with my husband was over a broken iPhone–my broken iPhone. This wasn’t just broken, it was shattered with small shards of glass starting to come out. Just like everyone else, we love our phones, but this argument was out of proportion to the situation. He was convinced I was angry and broke the phone on purpose. He also insisted I take it to the store and fix it immediately. I was furious he could accuse me of doing such a thing. And, as an oddly frugal person, I insisted I could still use the phone by carefully avoiding the small shards of glass, to save money.
Angrily, I conceded and was driving to the Apple store, tears streaming down my face—when I saw a woman I knew walking her dog. I was so excited to tell her my side of the story that I practically drove up on the sidewalk to talk to her. I rolled down the window and shouted, “My husband and I just got into a huge fight. I broke my phone and he thinks I did it on purpose and that I should fix it now!” I sat back and waited to see her agree and understand, but instead saw a confused look on her face (perhaps slightly terrified) as she said, “Uh—okay—you probably should fix it though, right?” As I drove away, I suddenly realized my story didn’t make any sense because it wasn’t explaining what was really going on. We were not fighting about the stupid phone.
Lucky for us, that wasn’t the last of our fights and we won front row tickets to couples therapy. Yes, therapists need therapy too, why do you think we’re so fascinated with everyone else? We’re always trying to fix ourselves.
There, we argued some more but I learned something in the process that changed my life and the way I argued forever: the secret to winning arguments.
Before we know how to win, we first need to understand why we are arguing in our relationships.
What relationships are we talking about today? We’re talking about healthy relationships—meaning they are mutual. This could be romantic, but also applies to families and friends. We’re not talking about bullying, abuse, or just volatile comments left on social media between strangers.
So, why are we arguing in our relationships? It all boils down to this: people have a basic human need for love and connection.
Think about it for a second. From the moment you were born, you needed people to survive—someone to feed, clothe and protect you. That has been true since the beginning of mankind and is true for all human beings.
Which means your brain takes this very seriously. Our brains are hardwired for survival. And our brain is very aware that we need love and connection from birth. In fact, without you knowing it, your brain is constantly scanning for threats of danger or harm, including the threat of not having love and connection—in other words: rejection or loneliness.
If you’re tempted to think that’s just for babies, I am here to tell you it is just as true for adults as we age. We all need people and connection for our survival.
Further research from the UK at University of York shows loneliness increases a person’s average risk for coronary heart disease and stroke by 50 percent, which are the two biggest health burdens in higher-income countries.
We need connection for our survival and physical health even as adults. When we argue about seemingly small things, deep below the surface, our brain is scanning to determine if there is a threat for rejection, which could threaten our survival.
When our brain senses this threat to our survival, it often triggers what’s called an “amygdala highjack,” otherwise known as the fight-flight response. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system and increase our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and even affects our short-term memory, making it difficult to stay on point or even remember what you wanted to say. Your heart may pound; hands can get sweaty, your body may feel shaky and you may even lash out and say hurtful things because it is difficult to think clearly.
All these things are designed to help your body fight or run for your life, which is helpful if you’re trying to run away from a lion, but not helpful in an argument.
That’s why I panicked when I was arguing about a broken iPhone. While my conscious mind thought I was trying to save my pride and some money, my unconscious mind was terrified that my partner in life may reject me and take away the love and connection and threaten my very survival.
While I was not facing the possibility of death or losing my husband, I could taste the panic while I was arguing with my husband.
It really felt like I was might die if I admitted I was wrong.
This isn’t unique to me. If you’re honest, how many times has it felt like a life-or-death situation when you are arguing about something in your relationship?
In my personal therapy, I learned how to calm myself in the face of panic and I was able to experiment with different responses in highly emotional situations.
So I tried the craziest thing—I admitted he was right.
I said, “You’re right. “
I was really angry when I was talking with you on the phone and I’ve broken things before when I was angry. I see why you think I broke it on purpose. You’re also right for having me fix it. That’s the responsible thing to do.”
I felt like I had offered myself as a sacrifice to be slayed. I braced myself for rejection. But, what happened next was so surprising. My husband’s face softened. His expression shifted. His body relaxed. He turned toward me, smiled and said, “It’s okay. I’m not perfect either. I’ll work on it.”
I was shocked and felt a flood of happy feelings—relief, joy, love and most importantly, connection. I thought to myself, “well this is a whole lot better than being ‘right’.”
And to make sure it wasn’t a freak coincidence, I kept trying it. I got the same results every time, and not just with my husband – with my mom, my friends, my clients and my family. Our arguments led toward connection.
The secret is to agree.
Here’s why it works, when you say, “I agree with you,” or “I see your point” the other person can relax because you are no longer an enemy. When the brain no longer senses a threat, it changes from a primal response of fighting danger to a more complex thinking system that allows them to listen, validate, and understand you and move toward connection.
At this point, you might be wondering a couple of things.
What if I really don’t agree? That’s a great question. This is not about lying or being deceitful; this is about genuinely finding something—anything—to agree about. Even if that means, you simply acknowledge their feelings.
You also might be thinking, “I thought you were telling us how to win every argument. It sounds like you’re telling me to let the other person win.”
To which I say, you’re right. That may not seem like winning at first. But remember, why do you want to be right? Your brain really wants love and connection.
I think it’s time we change our definition of winning an argument, from being right to being connected—That’s winning.
The bottom line is this: loneliness can be deadly. The scary thing is that people can be lonely just about anywhere. You can be lonely in a crowd, a party, a family, and even a close relationship—especially if you are arguing.
After thousands of hours of counseling clients and in my own struggles with arguments and loneliness, I have become only more certain that our world is in desperate need for more love and connection.
If we all learned how to argue towards healthy connections – instead of being right– we can spread more love in our friendships, relationships, families and communities.
So, I am going to close by asking you to not argue with me—just give it a try!
Lauren Schifferdecker is a TEDx speaker, author of “Inspire Your Life” ebook, and owner of Inspire Counseling Center. She is an entrepreneur, wife, mom, business owner and a professional speaker who loves inspiring people to live their best life. You can get her free e-book and inspiring newsletters via www.inspirecounselingcenter.com