Use these 5 strategies for more productive disagreements.

By Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D.
Courtesy of Psychology Today

No matter how strong your romantic relationship is, at some point you’re going to have disagreements. And while never arguing is an unrealistic goal, arguing better is an essential one.

Thankfully all of us can improve the quality of our communication, including the way we argue. In my recent discussion with communication specialist Oren Jay Sofer on the Think Act Be podcast, I asked for his guidance on how we can communicate more effectively. He noted the following five principles for transforming our patterns of speaking and listening, as detailed in his book Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.

1. Be present.

Many disagreements start because we weren’t really listening to the other person. Our undivided attention is “the most essential prerequisite of communication,” Oren told me. “We have to be here. If we’re thinking about something else, lost in thought, distracted—no communication actually happens.”

It’s easier than ever to be distracted by the constant intrusion of social media and other alerts. Even when we intend to be present and engaged, we might find our minds wandering off, especially if we’re having a conversation we’d rather avoid.

That’s where practice in mindful awareness can be helpful. “Mindfulness gives us a tool to enhance our ability to stay present,” Oren said. For example, a basic meditation on the breath can train our minds to notice when our attention has wandered and bring it back.

When we’re fully present, we bring the best of ourselves to the relationship. “Our presence says You’re important to me,” Oren said, because we’re willing to give the other person our time and attention.

2. Be aware of your emotional state.

Most of us have probably said or done things in anger that we wished we could take back. Mindfulness practice can help in this area, as well, since it increases awareness of our own emotions. When we recognize what’s happening internally, we can be careful not to do something we’ll later regret.

For example, if we find ourselves in a heightened state of “fight-or-flight,” we can “take a moment to gather our thoughts or step back” so we “don’t say something that’s going to take a lot of time and energy to clean up later.” We might say, for example, “I’m feeling really overloaded right now—can we come back to this when I’m a bit calmer?” Needless to say, it’s important to actually return to the discussion as soon as possible.

3. Recognize the need behind your emotions.

We often think that events cause our feelings—for example, our partner treats us unkindly and we get angry. However, there’s always a step between an event and our emotion. In my cognitive behavioral approach I often emphasize the thought between an event and a feeling:

My partner took 4 hours to reply to my text ? She doesn’t care about me. ? Distress, anger

In Oren’s approach he emphasizes the thwarted need. Needs, as Oren defines them, “are the deeper, fundamental longings in our hearts that drive us as human beings. They’re what matter most to us.”

In the scenario above, the need might be to feel cared for or to have the partner’s presence and support. Identifying what we need is a powerful step because it allows us to communicate our true needs to our partner, rather than getting stuck on more arbitrary and debatable rules like, “You have to reply immediately to my texts.”

4. Identify your partner’s need, behind their strategy.

In a similar way, we can ask ourselves what our partner needs during a conflict. Any behavior “can be understood as an attempt to meet those needs.”

Rather than focusing on what our partner is doing, we can look beneath the specific action to understand their need. A partner who demands more of our time or attention, for example, may be expressing their need to be seen and to feel valued.

We might take issue with the way they express that need. However, if we don’t move past the strategy they’re using to understand the need that’s driving it, we’ll continue to argue past one another.

5. Recognize your shared humanity.

Conflict divides, often making us see the other person as the enemy. In contrast, focusing on needs brings us together. “Humans share fundamental needs,” Oren said. Our need for air, water, food, and physical safety are obvious, of course, but relational needs are equally important—things like “empathy, love, and belonging.”

We also share spiritual needs, like the need for peace, beauty, or meaning—“that which in the human spirit is larger than self.” Our well-being depends on having these needs met, whether physical, relational, or spiritual.

By recognizing that we all need the same basic things, we can find common ground and more easily see that we’re all in this together. We can realize that our partner needs love, respect, autonomy, attention and acceptance—just as we do.

Our relationships will never be stronger than the quality of our communication. As Oren says in Say What You Mean, “Learning how to say what you mean and how to listen deeply is one of the most rewarding journeys you can take. When you have developed your capacity to speak wisely and listen well, you possess an inexhaustible resource with which to navigate and transform the world”—starting with your closest relationships.