As a therapist and Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I help people navigate arguments all the time. Disagreeing is not the cause of an argument. People disagree all the time — just look at our government. Defensiveness is the cause of arguments. When someone brings a complaint to you, it causes you to have a thought about yourself. You think something along the lines of, “If they feel that I did something wrong, it means that I am _____.” You then try to defend yourself in order to make the person like you, accept you, or at least not think bad things about you. Unfortunately, when we already believe part of what we believe they are saying to us, it makes us even more defensive because it’s reinforcing something about which we already feel badly.
In order to reduce defensiveness during disagreements, I recommend the following suggestions:
Fully acknowledge your role in the complaint someone is bringing to you. This does not make you weak or wrong. It simply means you are listening to the other person and they matter to you. This also will make the person less upset which is a win for both of you.
Do not try to shift the blame onto someone or something else. If someone is hurt by you, acknowledge their hurt, accept responsibility for your role in that hurt and assure them you will work on it and do better. Trying to blame someone or something else indicates that you believe what you did was acceptable.
If possible, let the other person know what changes you are trying to make. Be specific. “From now on I will try to help you with the kids when I get home from work so we will have more time to relax together later.” Simply saying “I’ll stop” or “I’ll do better” lacks specificity and can indicate to the other person you are not hearing or understanding their request.
It’s okay to seek support and professional help. Wanting to get help for relationship problems doesn’t mean you’re weak or that there’s no hope for your relationship. It simply means you would like guidance on navigating a difficult situation. We often ask for help with things that we don’t understand; relationships are no different.
Be patient. When a person brings a complaint to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about you personally. It just means something has happened that they do not like and are asking you for help so it doesn’t keep happening. Think of it as an opportunity to help the other person to be happy, rather than as an attack on you.
Arguments are uncomfortable for everyone, and doing these steps can help stop an argument from occurring which should make everyone happier.
It is important to note that this article is not intended to take the place of therapy, medical advice, or to diminish the effects of mental or personality disorders.
Dr. Brad Hinman, LPC, LMFT, AASECT certified sex therapist, director, Hinman Counseling Service; assistant professor, Andrews University.