When Sparks Fly

Some of us recoil from arguments, while others jump in with relish. Either way, employing insight and care means all involved can be victorious.

Illustrations by Asia Pietrzyk

Disagreements are a part of life. In fact, that’s a real understatement. Can you think of a day that didn’t include some conflict or argument, big or small? Can you think of a person you’ve known for more than a few years with whom you haven’t disagreed? I want to explore mindful arguing here, but not how to never have another argument or disagreement. That would be, frankly, impossible. There are myriad terms to describe arguments and the intense emotions they may inspire: bickering, feuding, fighting like cats and dogs, fur or sparks flying, going mano a mano, settling a score, hammering away at someone, dueling, being on a collision course, wrangling, and slugging it out are a few colorful expressions. It doesn’t appear that any of these are particularly about mindful arguing, but they are certainly descriptive of argumentative interactions. Most of these terms describe emotional arguments that erupt unexpectedly. Planned arguments are generally less fraught with emotion, although they, too, can become very heated and intense.

Here, we’ll look at both forms of conflict, the planned and the spontaneous, and how mindful awareness and practices can influence both.

illustration of cats and dogs fighting

The Planned Argument

The word “argument” often refers to a conflict or disagreement, but in its original Latin meaning, it was about making something clear or proving something. “A statement or fact advanced for the purpose of influencing the mind,” is one definition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Indeed, we often formulate arguments in our own minds as we prepare for challenging conversations. Discussions at work about a raise or a promotion, job performance reviews, talking with your parents or your children about money, arguing about where the kids are going to live after the divorce, talking with your partner about whether to accept a job in a remote location, or getting ready to advocate for a school lunch program at the upcoming school board meeting—all these are examples of arguments that we can anticipate and plan for. Any conversation we prepare for also has the potential to erupt into an emotional battle, but knowing beforehand that you’re going to be talking about something difficult may help you to be more aware and insightful about the issues and the interaction.

Here are some tools, rules, and reflections to help you plan for a more mindful discussion.

Preparation

Spend time beforehand with your thoughts and emotions. Your ongoing mindfulness practice helps prepare you for difficult conversations. Your practice or discipline may be mindfulness meditation, another body/mind discipline, or it can be taking walks with yourself, while noting the thoughts and emotions that arise. The more regularly you learn to be with yourself and explore your thoughts and feelings, the more likely you will be able to access mindful awareness in the midst of a difficult conversation.

Plan your argument but know that nothing goes according to plan. Having this awareness means that you don’t have to go sideways when the situation does!

As Victor Hugo put it in Les Misérables: “Nothing is more imminent than the impossible…what we must always foresee is the unforeseen.”

Consider the time and the space in which your discussion will take place.

When: If you or the person you’re talking to gets particularly cranky just before lunch, try not to schedule a difficult conversation at that time. If you know that the person you’re meeting with loves a walk in the early morning, that may be the perfect time for a difficult conversation. (However, if walking alone is the key to their enjoyment, pick another time!)

Where: Sometimes you can’t influence the location where you’ll be meeting, as, for example, if your performance review is in your boss’s office. But you may be able to choose your chair, or angle it differently, move it closer or farther away from the other person. These little things can affect how the conversation goes. Mindfulness can help you to be aware of your environment and slow down enough to see the details.

If you can choose where you have a discussion, think about this ahead of time. You probably don’t want to talk about your sex life or money problems with your partner in a noisy bar. Plan for a walk, or sitting down in a quiet place with a cup of tea. If an argument breaks out without warning, suggest a change of venue if you think it will improve the communication.

Dress for success. Wear clothing that is comfortable, empowering, and appropriate to the situation. It’ll help your mind to both focus and relax, just as your posture helps in meditation. A study reported by The Wall Street Journal in 2016 found that, not surprisingly, how you dress for work can affect how confident you feel and how others perceive you.

Think about how all the parties in an argument can benefit from the outcome. Check to see if you’re just planning for your own victory or if you’re at least trying to see things from both sides. The chances for a workable outcome increase greatly if everyone benefits in some way.

Look at your own feelings about the person you’re arguing with. Do you have empathy or feel some tenderness for the other person or people involved? When you sit down to discuss some changes in your domestic life, you may be upset that your partner is critical of your habit of streaming late-night TV in bed. It’s the one time you can fully relax, so you’re going to defend this, but have you thought about how this affects their getting a good night’s sleep?

When necessary, bring in another person to mediate. Sometimes this is essential to a positive or productive outcome. The additional person, whether just a witness or a trained mediator, provides another reference point, helping everyone to be less polarized. It can completely change the dynamics of an argument.

During the Argument

When it’s your turn to talk, take a breath and pause before you speak, just slightly. That helps to bring your mind and body into focus before you launch your argument. When things get heated, take another breath. Take another pause.

Listen to the other people involved in a conversation. If people feel they’re being heard, it allows them to also hear you.

Be flexible. When you listen, you may hear something unexpected or helpful. You may realize that there’s more common ground than you anticipated. Our projections and biases often cloud our perceptions of what’s happening in a situation. So listen and reflect on what you’re hearing, and be prepared to change your mind, on the spot.

Express your tenderness and vulnerability. A lot of times, we try to hide tender emotions. But that is often what can melt the aggression in the situation. Are you exposing yourself to further attacks if you let yourself be vulnerable? Sometimes that may be true. But often, opening up is what allows the other person to open and meet you on neutral ground.

Winding Down

At the end of your difficult conversation, check in with yourself. After you’ve argued with someone, set aside time for meditation, a long walk, or other forms of mindful reflection. How are you feeling? Did the argument go the way you expected? Do you feel good about the outcomes? You learn a lot about yourself in this kind of “postmortem.”

illustration of angry eyes in liquor glasses

If you can choose where you have a discussion, think about this ahead of time. You probably don’t want to talk about your sex life or money problems with your partner in a noisy bar.

The Unplanned Argument

Almost every mindful strategy to prepare for and conduct a planned argument will also help in unplanned—and usually unpredictable—disagreements. Find yourself furious that a family member (beyond toddler age) has left their stuff all over the house? Did your boss ask you to work all weekend again, even though they knew you had something special planned? Had no idea that your least-favorite uncle would be at your table at the wedding reception and would spend the whole evening baiting you? Your son wants to drop out of college and open a marijuana dispensary? Your mom still treats you like you’re twelve, and you can’t believe she’s going to tell that story again at Thanksgiving? Your partner just asked you for a separation? How is mindfulness going to help when arguments erupt in such situations, seemingly without warning?

Preparation

A regular contemplative practice will often come to your aid in these situations. Regular meditation practice or other disciplines to bring mind and body together help you to be more aware of yourself and others at all times, including in heightened situations. Your awareness won’t save you from pain—in fact the pain might feel more acute. However, you may be less overwhelmed by your feelings and more available to yourself and others. Regular mindful practice may give rise to insight in challenging discussions, helping you to meet difficulties with a little more grace.

During

The biggest difference between the planned and the spontaneous argument is that emotions generally drive unplanned arguing. They may arise within the difficult discussions we plan for, but here they dominate.

Mindfulness can help when you’re blindsided by anger and emotion. One important approach to mindful reflection, easier said than done in the moment of difficulty, is to suspend judgment of yourself or others in an argument. Notice behavior, notice words, notice how someone looks and talks—whether it’s you or others—without feeling that you have to label behavior as good or bad. Breathe through your feelings, to allow yourself to be present without recrimination. This can transform your whole view of the situation. You can take this approach in your life in general. Apply it when things are going well; then it will be more available to you when things go off the rails. Also include this approach in your review of a painful argument, after the fact. It may be unpleasant to acknowledge how you behaved while arguing with someone. But try to see it without judging it.

An extension of this approach to mindful arguing is to absorb the blame or take blame off the table. This is not about blaming yourself, thinking that you’ve caused the conflict or done the bad things. Absorbing the blame is hearing what someone else is saying, listening to your own internal and external voices and just being with or bearing witness to all that. You take it in and you let it go. Then the discussion can move to a different level; it is no longer focused on who is to blame. When you deeply care for someone, you are more likely to be able to use this approach. Absorbing the blame allows both you and others to stop playing the blame game, while still acknowledging the feelings, the hurt, and the anger.

Winding Down

And as discussed with planned arguments, spending time with yourself after the fact will be immensely helpful in processing what has happened. The really difficult arguments usually reflect complicated situations and feelings that don’t change or go away overnight. If your marriage is breaking up or you get fired from your dream job, mindfulness won’t make you feel great tomorrow. However, being more present in a difficult time will help you to process the feelings and learn from the situation. Ultimately, working through difficult situations is an opportunity to be more aware and to connect with yourself and others. This may not be what you want to hear at the time, but looking back on these experiences, you may eventually see them, or most of them, as things that have actually helped you in some way.

So far we’ve been talking about arguments here as though they’re all happening face to face. In today’s world, a lot of arguing occurs via email or other “remote” platforms. The self-righteous tweet or the impassioned social media post are part of our daily communi-cations—they get posted, read, shared, and retweeted by many of us. Can mindfulness help here? Indeed! It starts with just one word, one recommendation: Pause. Please pause before you hit send or post. The wisdom of common sense has advised us on this for a long time: Think before you speak. Take a deep breath and count to ten. That’s the essence of a mindful approach, and one we very much need in this polarized world of ours.

What we’ve addressed here are the difficult arguments, the ones that we wish we could avoid. Since everyone has to have some of these conversations in life, let’s do it with mindfulness, with presence, insight, and awareness. Arguing is something we all do, and much of it is harmless or even a source of creativity and connectivity. Adam Grant, in a recent New York Times piece, suggests that “if kids never get exposed to disagreement, we’ll end up limiting their creativity.” So here’s to the good arguments, the healthy disagreements.

illustration of lab bottles exploding

Your Brain on Arguments

How Chemistry Plays a Role in Our Arguments

In the heat of an argument, when we feel defensive or under attack, our reaction is often to speak louder, interrupt, and verbally attack the other person. You may feel a rush of energy, a surge of epinephrine and norepineph-rine—the hormones that are released when riding a roller coaster. The stress hormone, cortisol, is also released when we feel stressed, afraid, or attacked. Other physical symptoms of a stressful argument may include a faster heartbeat, shortness of breath, and a feeling of tightness in your chest. According to Judith Glaser in The Harvard Business Review we get addicted to the rush of battle, especially if we win the argument. When we feel victorious, the “feel-good” chemicals adrenaline (also called epinephrine) and dopamine are released in the brain, making us feel dominant and even invincible.

It’s fortunate that another chemical, oxytocin, is activated by positive, empathetic human interactions. According to Glaser, the release of oxytocin “opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing.” She believes that you can train yourself to not get swept up in a battle mentality when we argue. As she writes, “even the best fighters—the proverbial smartest guys in the room—can break their addiction to being right by getting hooked on oxytocin-inducing behavior instead.”

Mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation can play important roles in activating oxytocin, teaching us that it feels good to be friendly, to love, and to be loved. If empathy and openness play a role in an argument, we can change our allegiance from the chemistry of stress to the chemistry of empathy. According to Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today, any form of meditation will reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels. So we can help ourselves through the regular practice of meditation and by bringing mindfulness into stressful conversations.

Meditations on Mediation

A neutral third party can make all the difference in a rough dispute. Here are some tips for how to find and work with a mediator.

Sometimes a disagreement or dispute is so heated or complex, it seems impossible to see the bigger picture that allows you to find common ground and creative solutions. In those cases, it may be wise to seek the help of a neutral third party. If the dispute is significant enough (for example, marital, financial, or commercial), you may need to find a trained, paid mediator. Here are some things to consider that may help to create a more mindful mediation.

Think about what you want to accomplish through mediation. Do you want the mediator to be more directive and to suggest options, or do you want someone who gives fewer opinions in order to get the two parties to take more responsibility for the agreement?

Finding your mediator. Use referrals and word of mouth as well as local and national mediation organizations. Ask people you trust to recommend potential mediators—friends, lawyers, or therapists and health professionals. Check credentials. There are mediators who use mindfulness. Don’t be afraid to ask about that.

Meet the mediator. Nothing replaces your firsthand impressions of the person. Ask the mediator about their code of ethics, confidentiality, their methods, and their goals.

Don’t forget that there are two parties to the dispute. Can both of you work well with the person you’re considering?

In the heat of the moment. Mediation is not magic, even in the hands of the best mediators. You may well be triggered, lash out, melt down, act in ways you’re not proud of. That’s OK. A good mediator will help you find a way to let the process work. Give it the time, space, and patience it needs.

You want resolution. Remember that you’re heading for a destination you don’t know the shape of yet, so it will help during periods of hazy uncertainty to recall that you do want to get to the other side.

If at first, you don’t succeed… If your first crack at mediation is failing, don’t lose heart. Take a break. Pick yourself up, dust off, and try it again, with another mediator if need be.

illustration of person mediating a dispute between two people

GROW YOUR MEDITATION PRACTICE


Get practices, tips, and special offers delivered straight to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
About the author

Carolyn Gimian

Carolyn Gimian has been writing, editing, and teaching about meditation and mindfulness for more than thirty-five years. She is a regular contributor to Mindful magazine.

x