How arguments happen is not a mystery. Learn the six steps of an argument and how to avoid one.

How arguments happen is not a mystery. In fact, most arguments break out in observable and predictable ways. You can improve your communication skills and become an expert in conflict management by learning the six steps of how arguments happen and how to avoid them.

how arguments happen

I am sure we have all had the experience of being in a conversation where the discussion falls apart, turns into an argument and we are left wondering what went wrong.

What often goes wrong is that individuals said or did something in an attempt to make their communication better, but their strained communication skills only made the situation worse.

When a conversation goes well, people have said and done things to create a successful outcome. There is no magic or divine intervention determining the outcome of the conversation. Our actions and efforts either create a successful outcome or they do not.

I am going to describe how conversations can break down and turn into arguments. But before that I’d like to describe a few important ideas:

  • People value being understood more highly than being agreed with. We can typically tolerate people not agreeing with us, but if we feel misunderstood we will likely continue the conversation in an attempt to clarify our intent.
  • It is impossible to not communicate. Granted, some forms of communication are more easily understood and successful than others, but we all communicate, all the time.
  • We usually open our mouths because we think whatever we have to say is important enough to convey.

Given the above, I’m going to use Phil as the sender of the communication and Linda as the recipient.

Step 1

Phil tries to communicate with Linda.

Phil opens his mouth, uses his communication skills and tells Linda what is important to him. Let’s say that Linda understands Phil and acknowledges to him that she understood. This is a successful communication.

But let’s say Linda does not get Phil’s message. Linda may be too far away and simply didn’t hear Phil. Maybe Linda was distracted and wasn’t concentrating on what Phil was saying. Or Linda may not want to hear what Phil has to say and is ignoring him hoping to avoid a conflict. For whatever reason, Linda does not recognize Phil’s attempt at communication.

So what happens? It was important enough for Phil to open his mouth, but the communication has not reached Linda. Phil will try again.

Step 2

Phil tries to communicate with Linda by raising his voice.

couple arguing

Phil already has tried to convey his message once, but it didn’t work. Phil is now a little frustrated and tries to get his point across to Linda raising his voice, hoping to get her attention. He may call Linda’s name and attempt to get her to look at him directly.

Linda didn’t get the communication in the first place, but now hears Phil’s raised voice. Linda does not understand why he is talking loudly to her but that escalation has now become part of Phil’s communication.

Hopefully, Linda hears what Phil has to say without becoming distressed by his raised voice and the communication will be complete. Linda reflects to Phil what he had said, making sure she got it right. This is a successful communication.

But let’s say she again does not receive the communication from Phil. As before, there could be many reasons for Linda not hearing or understanding what Phil has to say.

Step 3

Phil tries to get Linda’s attention or understanding by giving her an example of what he means.

As you can guess, Phil is becoming even more frustrated at the failed communication. This is his third attempt to convey his thoughts to Linda. Phil might say something like, “Hey, this is what I mean. Do you remember when…?” or “It’s like this…” or “We’ve talked about this before. Remember…” or “What I’m trying to tell you is…”

What is Linda receiving from Phil? She is the target of his raised voice, growing frustration and examples from the past.

Hopefully, Linda will respond that she does understand what he has been trying to say. If Phil feels understood then the communication is complete.

But what if Linda still doesn’t get the message from Phil? Perhaps Linda is also frustrated and does not understand what Phil is upset about. Or perhaps Linda is sensitive to examples from their past. Again, there could many reasons why she does not get the communication from Phil. (Keep reading and you will find out what Linda has likely done to help this argument break out. She has done something we all do on occasion.)

Up until now, the conversation has not completely disintegrated. The next step, however, indicates a crucial point that can take this interaction from an attempted conversation to a confrontation.

Step 4

Phil decides to make it about Linda.

This is the fateful step in which Phil, who is understandably frustrated, says things like, “You never listen to me. How many times do I have to try and say the same thing before you get it through your thick skull?” Or “What’s wrong with you? Do you have some sort of mental problem? How come you can’t understand what I’m trying to tell you?” or “You’re too much like (fill in the blank)”, “You’re not enough like (fill in the blank)”, “You should…you shouldn’t…how come you…why don’t you…”.

Phil is now making a personal attack on Linda. He has moved from trying to convey information to making the communication about Linda.

Linda is under attack, so what does she do? She defends herself. How do many people defend themselves? They go on the attack after all, “A strong defense is a good offense.”

couple conflict

Linda now makes it about Phil. “Oh yeah? You think you’re such hot stuff? What about when you…? Or “Don’t make this about me. You’re the one…” or the other thousands of ways in which we can verbally attack other people.

The interaction has now stopped being a conversation and is a full-blown argument. A verbal brawl has broken out. The gloves come off and hurt feelings from past issues are dusted off the shelf and brought into the fray. The original topic Phil was trying to discuss has been left far behind. This “conversation” is now a verbal melee and problem solving has gone right out the window as voices are raised and emotional reactivity is heightened.

At some point the fight stops.

Step 5

Phil decides it is useless to try and communicate with Linda.

If Step 4 happens too often, Phil will come to the conclusion that it is useless to try and communicate with Linda. Phil might say, “She doesn’t listen to me. We always end up in a fight. What’s the point?”

When Phil concludes there is little point in trying to communicate with Linda their relationship is in serious trouble. One spouse turns away from the other, coworkers keep to their separate corners and family members keep their emotional distance from each other.

Step 6

Phil leaves.

If arguing becomes the predominate way of trying to solve problems and Phil decides it is useless to keep trying to communicate then he may decide to leave. Phil has emotionally pulled out and may seek to end the relationship. Or, Phil may stay in the relationship, but live an emotionally separate life. Many couples approach therapy with a feeling of being little more than roommates. In the workplace Phil may decide to tell the boss to take his job and…

In reading this description, I assume that you can remember times when your conversations have fallen apart in this sequence.

Remember I mentioned that Linda does something very simple to help propel the conversation towards an argument.

The simple thing Linda does to help the conversation on its path towards an argument is back in Step 1 she formulates her response to Phil before he has finished talking. And, furthermore, before Phil is finished talking Linda cuts him off.

We’ve all done this. We think more quickly than we talk and so we often figure out our response before people have finished with what they have to say to us. We interrupt with what we want to say before the message is complete.

Phil’s primary interest is to be understood and when Linda cuts him off, this need is unmet. No wonder Phil begins to get frustrated. Now there are two issues on the table; Phil’s issue and Linda’s issue. Which issue gets to be discussed? Who wins? Phil or Linda?

What does Phil do? Going back to Step 2, Phil may raise his voice to get Linda’s attention and then redirect the conversation back to their original issue. But Linda has already introduced what is important to her and they are set for a power struggle.

How can the couple, family members or coworker avoid this predictable path towards misery?

  • First, hold your tongue and wait until you receive the complete message. Reflect back on what you have heard them say. You do not have to agree with the other person but you do need to let them know you understand the message.
  • Second, pace your communication. Slow the conversation down to discuss one issue at a time. This takes practice and patience.

When I’m describing to a couple how arguments happen I usually provide a little coaching for women. You see, size does matter.

Think of a woman and a man standing next to each other holding empty glasses. The woman has a glass that could hold a pint and the man would have a glass that could hold 8 oz.

Women have the skill, capacity and training to hold more words and emotional content then men. Men are generally not as well trained to express themselves verbally especially in highly emotional situations. Men simply have a smaller capacity (glass size) than women.

This matters because, as you might remember, our primary interest is to be understood, not agreed with. The woman will approach the man with her superior ability to deal in words and emotions hoping he will be able to understand her. But the poor man is outgunned.

couple arguments

As she pours her volume of words and emotional intensity from her pint glass into his 8oz. glass, he is likely to be overwhelmed. She has been trained since a girl to discuss feelings. He has not. She has been trained to use words to express herself. He has not. It is like she has been studying Spanish since a girl. He has not been trained to express his feelings verbally. He has been trained to handle problems with action, not words. He has been studying French since boyhood.

When she approaches him for an important discussion she is prepared to speak Spanish. She likely forgets that he speaks French. As she begins to pour words and content into his glass he is trying to understand her. He is trying to be sympathetic and relate to her feelings. He is trying to translate from French to Spanish as quickly as he can.

At some point, either due to too many words or too much emotional intensity, he may become overwhelmed. When this happens, he will disengage from the conversation.

Men disengage in a number of ways.

  • They may get up and leave.
  • They may explode or physically act out to halt the conversation.
  • They may remain in the conversation, but intellectually and emotionally check out. They take on the “dead trout” look like a packaged fish in a supermarket. They might still be sitting there, but no one is home.

Our primary need is to be understood, so the woman - with her superior capacity to handle words and emotions - will keep pouring into his glass. But it is a wasted effort. The result is little more than her words and emotions spilling over the sides of his glass.

So what’s a woman to do?

  • Realize you have a greater capacity than men for words and emotions. (You likely already know this.)
  • Keep it simple and stay focused. If you start pouring too many topics and different emotions into his glass he will have a harder time understanding you and be able to show support.
  • If you see him disengaging, slow down or stop, until he can catch up. The trick is to slow down your pour rate so he does not disengage. Once a man checks out of a conversation it is very difficult to get him back and be productive.

What’s a man to do?

  • If you are feeling uncomfortable, anxious or like you are in an emotional blender, speak up and say so. Express this feeling and your confusion. Ask your partner, or friend, to give you a minute to catch up. Reflect back to her what you understand she is trying to tell you. Know that any corrections she offers you are in the interest of helping you understand her, and not meant as an indication of incompetence.
  • If you need to disengage for a while, say so. It is much worse to wait until you can’t take it anymore, storm out and leave the conversation unresolved.
  • Take a break, but always return to the conversation. The amount of time away from the situation can only be determined by the two individuals involved.

Can he learn to speak Spanish? Of course he can. But, as with learning any new language or way of communicating he will probably be lousy at it in the beginning. Will he go out with his buddies and speak Spanish? Probably not.

Can she learn to speak French? Of course, but she may wonder why in the world she would want to. Will she go out with her girlfriends and speak French? Probably not.

The goal is not to require the other person to speak our language but realize our differences, make allowances, have patience and tolerance as we try our best to all get along and understand each other.