Should You Be the "Bigger" Person?
Here's the right way to "win" an argument.
Posted January 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Whether online or in real life, it’s easier than ever to find ourselves suddenly sucked into the throes of a furious, heated argument. Likely exacerbated by the divisive political and cultural climate of the last few years and the fact that facts, themselves, are now up for debate, the very act of disagreeing—or let’s face it, fighting—has evolved dramatically in the present.
So, the question remains, what’s the right way to approach an argument? How can we be the “bigger” person in a dispute, without compromising our values or simply resigning to agree to disagree? In other words, can you ever both be right and the bigger person?
If you think the answer is no, we’re way past civil discourse and the best thing to do is avoid arguments altogether, then you’re exactly like me. But, when I reached out to psychologists and mental health experts to get their take, what do you know, they disagreed.
The reason we fight in the first place is that we feel “stuck,” says La Keita D. Carter, a licensed psychologist based in Maryland.
“When you decide to be the bigger person it’s about saying, ‘I’m not willing to be entangled with you in this way for an extended period of time or permanently.”
Arguments are often treated as a zero-sum game. One side wins, the other loses. Being the bigger person requires us to look past this framing, however. What winning actually looks like is to successfully let go of the dark cloud hovering over a relationship and move past it.
Would You Rather Be Right or Happy?
“Would you rather be right or be happy?” is how Christian de la Huerta, coach and best-selling author of Awakening the Soul of Power, tackles hard-to-resolve arguments.
Even when we’re fundamentally right about an argument, he says, “the pleasure from ‘winning’ is fleeting and ultimately, not worth it,” since relationships still “end up with conflict, discord, and mistrust.”
It’s why he suggests in low-stakes conflicts, which don’t have a significant amount of consequence riding at hand, “it may be worth not taking a strong stance and backing off gracefully.” That is to say, offering a simple, “Maybe you’re right” may be, in fact, the right thing to do.
When the stakes are higher, however, letting the other person get their way doesn’t make you the bigger person.
Instead, what Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University, suggests, is to “be assertive and... consider the needs of the other person while addressing the issue in a constructive manner.”
What does this look like in practice?
The key is to ask the other person questions “to help you understand their viewpoint better,” he says. The purpose here is not to sacrifice your position, but show that “you’re valuing their opinions and offering solutions.”
Of course, he admits this is easier said than done—especially when the other side is aggressive, passive-aggressive, or has little desire to resolve the conflict.
While “it is far easier to give up and end the conversation, instead of persevering to achieve an outcome,” if you’re willing to put the work in, constructive conflict resolution does result in better outcomes, more positive relationships, and increased self-confidence.
Playing the Blame Game
We are right. They are wrong. Most arguments confine us to this myopic, binary, and fundamentally flawed sense of reality. But identifying who’s truly at fault is not nearly as cut and dry, especially when both parties might share some of the blame.
This is why Laura Louis, an Atlanta-based licensed psychologist and relationship therapist, advises that being the bigger person in an argument means fessing up and accepting responsibility for our part in a conflict.
A simple acknowledgment of our role, like “I apologize for hurting your feelings, what can I do to make you feel better?” can make a big difference to the other person, she explains. At the same time, if only one person is always apologizing without reciprocity, this could be a red flag. A healthy relationship, she says, is one “where both parties are able to admit their part in conflict.”
Rev. Sheri Heller, a New York-based psychotherapist, shares a similar perspective. To be the bigger person, we must demonstrate a “willingness to find common ground and achieve resolution, even if each person's reality differs,” she says.
One place to start, she says, is to listen to the other person. Or more accurately, actively listen—which means to pay full attention to what the other person is saying with the goal of understanding their viewpoint. This isn’t how a typical conversation works. Rather than responding with quick judgments or sharing your opinion, your job is to simply act as a sounding board. Active listening is a common tool used in counseling and conflict resolution.
Another approach she recommends is setting boundaries around certain subjects that “arouse volatility.”
We each have our limits and blind spots—and active listening can only do so much. In these circumstances, the smart way to curtail conflict is to simply avoid crossing into topics in disputed territory.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Let’s say you’ve exhausted all your options. You’ve shown grace, humility, and open-mindedness. You’ve apologized for your actions. And yet, the other side still won’t budge or refuses to reciprocate any of your good faith efforts to amicably end a fight. What do you do then?
If you feel at the end of your rope, then being the bigger person may not be the right solution for this situation. Sometimes when they go low, it feels impossible to go high. In these instances, Shawnnell Batiste, a licensed psychologist based in Texas and Louisiana, says, don’t force it.
“Being the bigger person is not necessarily the best practice ... Not every relationship will be salvaged. Maybe boundaries need to be set.”
Though it would be ideal, we don’t (and likely won’t) always reconcile our differences. In her view, Batiste determines positive conflict resolution as when each person can “express their thoughts and feelings in a respectful and fulfilling manner.” And, even if both sides are unwilling to compromise, each party still “walk[s] away feeling heard, if not understood.”