How To Diffuse Any Argument
Years ago, I was in a relationship with a funny, intelligent, warm, loving man. He also had quite a temper. I started thinking about ways I could get our arguments to be less explosive and more productive. I developed a way of handling a conflict within a romantic relationship that I later discovered worked incredibly well in business too.
I put together a mental list of steps that I thought might work with “Tom.” I’ll never forget the night I first tried it and was just astounded at the results. What promised to be a major blow out between us, resulting in days upon days of discord, instead took about an hour to reach a viable, agreeable solution. We were back to loving each other quicker than I ever thought possible.
Years later, I found myself in an industry notorious for ticked off customers. My then husband and I began and ran a German car repair shop together. As the “frontman” for the business, I found myself dealing with upset, unhappy clients on a daily basis.
It wasn’t that we weren’t offering quality service. We were. The problem resided in the very nature of the business. No one is happy when their car is broken, and especially when they discover how much time and money it’s going to take to fix it. Customers notoriously underestimate what it will take to get it right, and the car repair business itself is shrouded in a long, sordid history of distrust and corruption.
The steps I use to get to a viable, peaceful resolution in any conflict, business or personal, are actually very simple. The problem is that most of us are too distracted with defending our own positions and planning out our next counterargument instead of really listening.
I have to admit, I haven’t used this in my personal life as much as I should, but I did get pretty good at using it in business. It became a habit for me and it worked beautifully. And every now and then I will actually remember it during a personal conflict and once again I am amazed at how much more smoothly things go.
When someone approaches you with a conflict and tells you that they are upset with you because of…..(fill in the blank,) here are the steps, broken down, for you to try.
Say, “I understand you are upset with me. I want to really listen to what you have to say, so please tell me everything that is upsetting you.”
Even if you already know what’s upsetting them, and they know that you know, this is a way to show them that you are ready to listen and that you really care.
(This is by far the most difficult part to pull off, so really try!)
SHUT UP AND REALLY LISTEN FOR AS LONG AS THEY KEEP TALKING.
Don’t roll your eyes.
Don’t sigh or huff.
Really listen. Keep your eye contact with them engaged. Add a few “uh-huhs” and “hmmms” to let them know you are fully listening.
I don’t care if they talk for five minutes or an hour, or if they spew a plethora of non-truths and inaccuracies that make your blood boil.
Do not interrupt.
Do not argue.
Do not let your mind wander to your counter-arguments or how you are going to “set them straight” when it’s finally your turn.
Really, really listen.
They will likely talk for a while without taking a breath, and will keep checking to see if you are going to start talking over them or posing counterarguments, because that’s what we are used to with each other. Rise above it. Just listen.
They will also likely stop talking for a moment, and you will be moved to jump right in. Don’t. Give them a chance to pause, collect their thoughts, and recall anything else they need to say. Give them more leeway than any of us is even remotely accustomed to.
It will feel awkward, for both of you. But just wait until the light goes on for them and they realize you are really, intentionally, consciously listening! You’ll see it cross their face. A little disbelief but also a whole, new respect for you. Seriously. Trust me!
Once they completely spend themselves and are truly done talking, (and you’ll know—do not jump in too soon!) then ask them if it would be okay for you to summarize what “you feel they just said.”
Notice what’s in parentheses here. I did not say, “summarize what you just heard,” because what you heard might not be what they actually said! So give them the verbal cue and yourself the leeway to not get it perfect.
Then summarize it and ask, “Did I get it right?”
Then again, listen, and if they make any corrections to your summarization, repeat this step until they agree that you’ve got it accurate.
Now is when you put your thoughts together. Take a moment, then ask them this:
I think we are clear on what the conflict is.
(Feel free to use your own lingo throughout any of this.)
I’d really appreciate it if you would help me come up with a solution that we both would be satisfied with.
Now you’ve enlisted their help to come up with a solution!
“What would a solution look like to you?”
Then again, shut up and listen.
Nine times out of ten I have discovered their idea of a resolution is way easier for me to provide than anything I was thinking they’d likely ask for!
If they present a solution you can live with, great. For example, for you to quit stopping at a bar every night before you come home, or quit spending all of your free time together on the phone with your friends, or give them a 20% discount on their business transaction with you.
Whatever it may be, now you are in a position to calmly negotiate. Their anger and frustration with you is diffused and now the two of you can work together to come up with a mutually agreeable solution.
If you are in the position in which you also need something from them, remind them that your goal here is resolve this conflict. Right here is the most productive place in the discussion for you to present what you want. But say it this way:
I really want to resolve this and would be happy to do what you have requested. It would really work well for me if I could ask of you “this and this” and that way we could both come out of this satisfied.
Again, nine times out of ten, by the time you’ve reached this point, they are more than happy to return your respect and consideration you showed them by really listening and give you what you are asking for as well.
By directly asking them to help you come up with a solution, you are also putting half of the responsibility for finally solving the conflict into their lap, which will make them much more motivated to see it through and be happy with it.
They’ve by this point told you what will resolve the issue for them. You’ve moved the conflict from emotional and heated to rational and calm. It is in this place that the two of you will more readily be able to work together to solve the issue and move forward again as friends, lovers or business associates.
And just as you will expect them to do what they agreed to help resolve your beef, you also must follow through and do what you say, or you’ll end up having to start the whole process all over again!
Conflict and discord are inevitable if human beings are dealing with each other. Sometimes all it takes is to show the other person that you really are listening, and then actually listen!
More times than not, the solution to solve the conflict is much loftier in your mind than it will actually need to be to get the job done.
And putting ourselves into a position of working with the person we are in conflict with, instead of standing our ground and focusing only on what we feel we need, also shifts our focus from a “zero-sum,” egocentric agenda to a winning agenda for all.
Choose your battles carefully. Most aren’t worth the effort. Giving a little of your own ground up is sometimes worth it to avoid drawn out discord.
© 2018 Elisa Fortise Christensen