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How to Discuss and Disagree Without Arguing

There's a popular false dichotomy: either argue or disengage to avoid conflict.

Key points

  • A discussion is a respectful exchange of information. A discussion involves trying to understand, inform, and reach mutual accommodation.
  • An argument involves trying to refute the other side and undermine the confidence of “opponents.”
  • Troublesome arguments, especially between loved ones, are thinly disguised power struggles.

“To tell someone they’re wrong, first tell them they’re right.” — Pascal

“Truth is polygonal.”

“Argument” has a couple of dictionary meanings. The second is secondary because it hardly exists anymore in normal discourse:

“A reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.”

The meaning we’re more familiar with:

“An exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one.”

Discussion vs. Argument

A discussion is a respectful exchange of information. An argument is a coercive attempt to be acknowledged as right or smart or sensitive.

In arguments, we try to refute the other side, usually in a tone meant to undermine confidence. In discussions, we try to understand, inform, and reconcile divergent views.

In arguments, we invalidate feelings and undermine perspectives. In discussions, we validate feelings and expand perspectives.

In arguments we devalue: “You’re just wrong!” (implying there’s something wrong with you for being wrong). In discussions we ask for and offer more information.

Power Struggles

Discussions turn into arguments when disagreement seems like an ego-threat or loss of status and when parties regard disagreement as disempowering. The disempowered brain seeks adrenaline, which too often motivates attempts to take power, not from the argument, but from the person with whom we argue. The goal of the argument is to prevail, not find truth.

In Love Relationships

Power struggles are not really about power — who gets to rule. They’re about value, specifically, attempts to compensate for precipitous drops in self-value.

When self-value falls, as it typically does in arguments with loved ones (whom we expect to care how we feel), partners feel vulnerable but unsafe to express vulnerability. To feel less vulnerable, many try to exert power over their partners, either overtly, through devaluing language or covertly, through sarcasm, tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions.

Arguments have a long recovery period (sulking, chilliness), with an implication that, “I can’t love you if you disagree with me.” After emotional discussions, partners “kiss and make up,” despite disagreement.

A useful way to think of the distinction: Discussions are between partners. Arguments are between opponents.

Discussions turn into arguments when:

  • Disagreement feels like rejection
  • There’s an expectation of disrespect.

Therapeutic Goals

If disagreement feels like rejection, focus on protecting your partner from rejection. Disagreement is easily tolerated when partners feel valued and protected.

If there’s an expectation of disrespect, be respectful. Practice compassionate-assertiveness – standing up for your opinions, beliefs, rights, and preferences, in ways that respect the opinions, beliefs, rights, preferences, and vulnerabilities of your partner.

Arguments turn into discussions when each partner recognizes that:

  • They don't want to devalue each other
  • Anger and resentment are inherently devaluing
  • Their connection is more important than their disagreement.

The most potent way to free relationships from the grip of power struggles is for each partner to regulate their core value internally, so it is never at stake and can never be diminished by an interaction. You are just as valuable, whether or not you agree with each other.

Core value does not depend on validation by others. Rather, it’s supported by your own humane values (including compassion, kindness, loving behavior) and strengthened by your attempts to improve, appreciate, connect, and protect. With core value intact, arguments naturally give way to discussions.

Chronic Resentment

Gainful discussions are next to impossible if resentment has become chronic in the relationship. Resentment is coercive — you do what I want or you’ll be punished in some way, usually by withholding affection.

If resentment is chronic, immersive intervention, like the Love without Hurt Boot Camp is required to build new habits and healthier coping tools.