How to Argue Effectively

arguments article Oct 28, 2020

Here is an article that I wrote for Sunday Woman

How to argue effectively 

Arguments in a relationship are common,  frequently unresolved and can get into a downward spiral creating resentment and driving a couple apart. 

It is also important to understand that many differences or arguments are not resolvable.  Research by Dr John Gottman in the USA shows that 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems.

Arguments fall into three main categories:

  • Solvable problems are about a situation, like damp towels on the floor or toilet seats left up. The conflict is simply about that and there may not be any deeper meaning. These can be resolved.
  • Perpetual problems are caused by fundamental differences in personalities or needs.  These are problems that are likely to repeat.
  • Stuck problems are perpetual problems that have been mishandled and have become the elephant in the room.  These normally have hidden agenda’s underneath.

The important steps to be able to argue better are:

  • Pick the right time and space to do so
  • Pause if needed.

Doing it when either of you are angry will not work.

If one or both of you is feeling activated, that is likely to mean that you are in fight, flight or freeze mode and resolution will be impossible because your hearing and brain will have largely shut down to allow blood to flow to the muscles to help you fight or flee. If you are like that, take responsibility for your own state and (ideally by an agreed physical sign) pause the argument.  Agree that you will return to the discussion when you have calmed down and the time is suitable.

  • Focus on the underlying feelings rather than the ‘stuff’
  • Listen to understand rather than talk to persuade
  • Schedule time in your diaries to maybe have a weekly ‘state of the union meeting’ to discuss five things your partner has done well in the relationship and one where there is a need for improvement. 

Here is a structure to help get to the real core of a stuck issue, understand each other’s position and find a resolution: 

Slow down.  Set aside at least 30 minutes where you will be free of interruptions.

Take turns as Speaker and Listener.  The aim is for both of you really understand each other’s feelings on this issue

  1. The Speaker’s Job

You, as the Speaker, talk about how your wishes, hopes, and needs are being affected by the issue involved.  You must state your complaints in a very specific way which may require you to make a mental shift from blaming and criticism.  Do this by:

  • Not using blaming, or “you” statements.
  • Talking about your feelings.
  • Using only “I” statements about a specific situation.
  • Stating positive Say what you long for, and how this might be achieved.

Behind every complaint is a longing or need, and within every need is a recipe, that, when followed, lets others meet that need in you.  It needs to be positive, so if the first thought is “I don’t want....” or “I dislike....”, turn this around to “I want....” or “I like....”. By speaking your needs out loud, your partner can start to identify what’s really important to you and how they can help you get it.

  1. The Listener’s Job

The task is for you to listen to the Speaker in such a way that you can repeat the Speaker’s position back to their satisfaction.  Many people find this easier if they make notes.  The aim is for you to change from “What the hell is this?” mode to the “What is this?” mode of listening and information processing.  A key skill is keeping your attention on what your partner is saying, not on your reaction to what they have just said.

Specifically, you are listening out for:

  • The content of the Speaker’s needs and perspective. What’s the narrative or story from their point of view?
  • The Speaker’s dominant moods, feeling or emotions while in this dispute. Aim to identify and label each one.
  • Then you summarise (not just repeat) what you have heard - both the content and the main feelings you have recognised in the Speaker. Invite the Speaker to clarify anything and then amend your summary until you have done it to the Speaker’s satisfaction.
  • Then do you now recognise what is so important to the Speaker about their standpoint? If not, try any of these questions:
    • “Help me understand why this is so important to you?”
    • “Is there a story behind this need?”
    • “How do you feel about this”
    • “And anything else?”
  • Then you validate the Speaker by completing a sentence like “It makes sense to me that you would feel [that way] and have [these needs], because…”. This is about understanding; you don’t have to agree with them! 

If you are able to start to do this you will move from arguments to understanding and resolution.  This will free up time for love and fun!



Neil Wilkie is a Relationship Expert, Psychotherapist, author and creator of the Relationship Paradigm