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How to manage arguments at home — a therapist’s toolkit

5 Jan 2021

With many of us spending more time at home, there might be more arguments than usual. This communication toolkit will help you keep them as clean as possible

Quick takeaways

  • During upsets, pausing before you respond is more constructive than reacting immediately
  • Managing your own emotional reaction can help you see and hear things more clearly
  • Showing you understand another person’s point of view is useful during arguments

Spending a lot of time with people – even our loved ones – can be tricky at times. As we continue to stay with our immediate households, a build-up of frustration and uncertainty from the past year may bring more heightened emotions than usual.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Life is pretty tough for many people right now. So, the last thing we want to do is fan the flames of division within our own families and relationships.

Instead, take a deep breath, and pre-empt any potential pitfalls by planning your conflict management toolkit in advance.

Learn the art of constructive conflict

Not all disagreements are bad. Having different opinions is what makes us grow and see things from different perspectives. This constructive conflict can sometimes even be a positive thing – but only if you ‘fight clean’.

Tools for ‘clean’ arguments

  • Don’t make it personal. No name-calling, character judgements, swearing or insults
  • Explain how a situation makes you feel. For example, ‘Lately I’ve been feeling quite sad when I feel you’re ignoring me’
  • Avoid the phrases ‘you always’, ‘you never’. These exaggerations are bound to make someone jump to defend themselves and get upset
  • Pause, then respond. If someone upsets you, don’t react immediately as you might give a knee-jerk reaction. For example, you might say, ‘You’re always checking your phone.’ But, what you really mean is you want them to pay you more attention. That opens up a new conversation, rather than just arguing about how your partner is always on the phone
  • Recognise the difference between anger and aggression. Anger can be a healthy emotion that alerts you something is wrong. But shouting, screaming and being intimidating is aggression, which is hurtful and abusive
  • Take responsibility for your emotions. You might feel angry and frustrated with someone — but, it’s down to you to choose your emotional state. By managing your emotional reaction, you will see and hear things more clearly

Take the time-out option

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, avoid getting into a discussion. Of course, this can be difficult, especially if you’re feeling wound-up.

If you want to avoid the situation escalating, it’s better to say, ‘This is something I want to talk about, but now isn’t the best time. I’d like to take time out.’

Wait until you feel calmer to get back to the discussion. Also, check when would be best to talk with the other person. If you’re feeling inflamed, go to another room or even go for a walk. Let your friend or family member know what you’re doing, so it doesn’t seem like you’re storming off.

Tools for diffusing a situation

  • Stop when you sense a situation building up. Do everything you can to try to stay calm. For example, go for a walk, count to 10, call a friend or do a short breathing meditation – anything that helps you to stay calm
  • Find out the other person’s ‘why’. Ask someone to explain their opinion in more detail, so you can better understand. This is a useful negotiation tactic. Asking someone to explain how they think and feel takes the emotion out of the situation and allows them to feel they are being heard. Hopefully, in turn they’ll reciprocate by listening to your views too, which can lead to a more peaceful resolution
  • Listen. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Most people stop listening during arguments. That means you’ve got two parties where no one is hearing what the other is saying. Sometimes when you show you understand where someone is coming from, it’s enough to help create a shift. Try saying someone’s point of view back to them with the words, ‘So, as I understand it…’
  • Know that you don’t always have to be right. Simply conceding that you can see the other person’s point; that you made a mistake or will do things differently next time, can work wonders. Remember, you don’t always have to be right or have the last word

Use respect when dealing with children

It’s normal for children to squabble at times. But if they are really playing up, look at what’s really causing them to behave this way.

Tools for managing arguing children

  • Check yourself first. Is their behaviour something they’re picking up from you? Be honest with yourself. Children are sensitive and if they are picking up on tension between you and your partner or sensing that you’re in a bad mood, their behaviour is often a reflection of what’s going on with you
  • Parent by example. Children are more likely to be helpful and cooperative if they see the adults around them treating each other with kindness and respect
  • Give children the cooling-off option. If your kids are arguing, suggest they do something else for 20-30 minutes and talk about it when they get back. After that, encourage each child to speak and the other to listen
  • Plan the chore roster in advance. Have a family meeting and write down what each member is expected to do on a daily or weekly basis. Make it clear what everyone’s role is and work out a rota. That way, everyone feels part of a team and knows what they have to do

This article has been approved by Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi

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