Most of us are pretty bad at arguing. We tend to react rather than respond, often mocking and caricaturing our opponent. As a result, we don’t hear, and vice versa, we aren’t heard.

Dealing with family conflict is especially common. About 35 percent of students say they fight with either their parents or siblings a few times a week or more, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. As kids, you took everything Mom or Dad said as fact. But as teens, you start to question your parents’ rules and beliefs. For parents, this might feel like you’re picking a fight (and let’s be real—sometimes that’s true), but research shows it’s more about striving to establish your own identity than wanting to argue.

When conflict is a good thing

Conflict is a part of life, and it can serve an important purpose. For example, controversial politics and policies mean we may need to know how to defend our positions and values to the people in power. The best thing we can do, then, is learn how to argue constructively.

Choosing what’s worth arguing about and becoming more self-aware can also strengthen our relationships and help us have more freedom, happier homes, and less stress.

 “To argue more constructively, it’s best to allow everyone to speak, not interrupt, listen to others, and speak calmly,” says Bethany, a sophomore in Anthem, Arizona.

Before the argument...

Decide whether it’s worth the effort: Not every annoyance is worth a fight, according to Jonathan Herring and Leigh Thompson in their book Learn the Art of Logic and Persuasion. If you argue about every single thing that bothers you, “you’re going to end up stressed out, frustrated, and damaging your relationship,” they write. Choose your battles wisely. But if the issue is causing you emotional distress, that’s a clue that it may be worthwhile.

Pick a good time: Instead of telling the person you want to talk, ask if now (or later, or tomorrow) would be a good time. “When you ask someone if they want to talk, it makes them feel like you’re being considerate of them,” says Tracy Hornig, director of mediation at the Center for Resolutions, in Media, Pennsylvania.

Jot it down: Write a letter to the person or notes for yourself, which can help you work out what to say before saying it out loud.

Determine a backup plan: “It’s easier for more drama to happen when a fight is already going on, which can make things worse,” says David, a student in Wilmington, Delaware. Decide beforehand that if you start to feel out of control, you’ll take time to calm down. “We tend to separate from one another (in separate rooms in our house, going outside, etc.) to cool our tempers,” says Shania, a senior in Brooklyn, New York. “The method always works, and we always say sorry after fighting.”

During the argument...

Take turns talking: Really listen to what the other person is saying instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next, and let them finish their thoughts before you speak. When it’s your turn to talk, ask them to do the same. 

Use “I” statements: Statements that start with “I feel” or “I think” will help you avoid blaming or accusing. “It’s hard for someone to tell you that what you’re feeling or what you think is wrong,” says Hornig. “After saying how you feel, explain why you feel that way.” 

Show you’re listening: “People are more willing to share information when they’re given the chance to be heard,” says Hornig. Listen to what the other person is saying, repeat it back to them, and then clearly explain your position. For example: “I know you’re trying to accomplish X, Y, and Z. Perhaps there’s a better way. What if we do this instead?”

Note your language: “Think about the words you’re choosing and how you’re responding, because it will affect how they respond,” says Hornig. Avoid insults and blame-worthy phrases like, “You’re wrong” or “Just calm down.” (Tip: No one in history has ever actually calmed down because they were told to.) This is where those “I” statements come in handy. “It’s important not to sound too harsh and make sure you’re not coming across as aggressive,” says Alyssa, a junior from Brooklyn, New York. 

Give yourself a minute: As we mentioned above, taking some time out during an argument can help us collect ourselves. “One thing people do in conflict is react,” says Hornig. “When things are getting heated, the ability to get grounded is key.” Try listening to music, watching some funny videos, or talking with a supportive friend.

After the argument...

Acknowledge agreements: Even if you didn’t come to a conclusion, mention any points of agreement. The other person will be more receptive if they know you’re willing to honor their views and recognize where your thoughts overlap.

Clarify it’s not an end-all: “Explain that even though your opinion differs from theirs, you don’t mean any harm,” says Emma, a sophomore from Brooklyn, New York. “Say, ‘That’s just how I feel, and I mean nothing against you.’”

Walk away: If you’re finding you just can’t come to an agreement, it’s OK to come back to the conversation another day. Say something like, “It doesn’t look like we’re going to figure this out today. Can we talk about this next week when we’ve had more time to think things through?”

Prevent future feuds: Take a page out of how business negotiations are done, and look for common goals, or a solution that can satisfy both parties. For example, if you’re arguing with family over who should do the chores—you might not agree on whose turn it is, but you can probably all agree that the house should be kept clean—suggest that you create a chore schedule to assign tasks and avoid future conflict.

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Article sources

Tracy Hornig, director of mediation at the Center for Resolutions, Media, Pennsylvania.

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