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How to Argue–From a Debate Professor

Couples argue. When two people share a life (and thus a lot of time) together, it’s unavoidable. Whereas you might feel totally comfortable telling a coworker or friend where to stick their unsolicited opinions, the stakes feel higher with a partner. You care about them. You want them to be happy. But sometimes… you just want them to see that you’re right and they’re wrong and to stop being so difficult. I hear you.

Arguing can be a good thing for a relationship if you do it right. Now, I’m not a psychologist, relationship expert, or professional mediator. What I am is a former internationally competitive debater and teacher of debate. Since this is a safe space and we’re all close, personal friends I’ll be honest: I love to argue. I love the pace and exchange and demand that I think on my feet. My partner — a truly wonderful and patient human — does not find this to be my best quality. I’m here to tell you that there are approaches to contentious moments in a relationship that ensure your voice is heard and can even strengthen your connection.

“The Pregame”

Many arguments are rooted not in the topic being argued, but the perception of what the argument says about one of the involved parties. The best way to mitigate this kind of dynamic is to make a habit of being supportive and constructive in common conversation with your partner. When they say something insightful, tell them you find it interesting. When you glean new information from a discussion, let them know you learned something. The goal isn’t a flattery-off, so don’t force these moments. Saying the little things you think in your brain as you talk with someone you care about can have a big impact when emotions run high. Even a simple “Huh. I hadn’t thought about that. Super interesting” can go a long way when you need it later on.

“The Mind Buck”

When it comes to a loved one, there is no such thing as “stuck” in a conversation. Weird Gene cornering you at the office at the holiday party is “stuck.” Changing the way you think about a situation has powerful implications for how your brain will allow you to process information. Often times we can feel an argument coming on, based on past experience. This generates stress, which does some pretty interesting stuff to brain chemistry and function. Most notably, stress can decrease activity in the parts of the brain that allow for higher level reasoning. If you feel like your critical thinking skills get worse as you get steamed, you might be right.

In this instance, you need to give your brain something else to focus on. Some people try a basic counting exercise, where counting backwards from twenty of fifty, (if you go from zero to Michael Bay in no time flat) de-escalates a situation. I found that a mantra, practiced in calm times but invoked prior to big debate rounds worked well for me. When it comes to fights with my partner, I’ve got a few choice mantras that relate to our connection that I cycle through. “My eyes sparkle when you laugh at my jokes,” reminds me of one of the best small shared moments we have. “You bring me coffee and smell my hair every morning,” is a more practically-focused meditation, and keeps our familial rituals at the forefront. “No matter what you say right now, you’ll still fart in the bed,” pulls double duty as a very true thing that makes me laugh but also something that keeps the situation in perspective. You might really want to, but don’t let your brain freak out or shut down.

“Listen, Breathe, Repeat”

The hardest but most effective rhetorical tool I’ve encountered. Even if the information being presented to you is incredibly objectionable, let the speaker run their course. Then, prior to your response, breathe deeply. Like, I’m talking diaphragm expanding, theatre warm up levels of deep breathing. Then, repeat what you’ve heard as best you can recall it. This does three things:

  • Let’s the other person feel heard;
  • Regulates your heartbeat, avoiding that “rage tremble” feeling we’ve all experienced;
  • Gives your mouth a second to catch up to your brain.

The kinds of people I used to debate against were not ones for brevity, so you’ll have to develop your own ways of remembering points you want to hit while they run out their words. I would pop a knuckle when I heard something I wanted to respond to, which was probably not great for my joints but effective in connecting a sensation to a statement I’d hear. I’d then try to pop the same knuckle and magically find that I was able to recall whatever point to which I’d wanted to respond.

“The Trump Card”

The bottom line is that for most people, anything is preferable to arguing. If your goal is to navigate the shortest distance between contention and drinking an IPA on the couch and laughing about your dumb tiff, nothing beats honesty. “I love you and want to enjoy our time together” tends to throw folks for a loop. That’s okay. So long as you stay levelheaded (see “The Mind Buck”) the relationship world is your oyster.