No one ever starts an argument

 In Blog, Effective Dialogue, Living Organizations

(Time to read: 2-3 minutes)

I’ve spent decades studying and participating in conversations with other people. And I’ve discovered something remarkable:
No one ever thinks they started an argument!

And yet arguments happen every day – how can this be?

The Chain

I’ve come to think of each human relationship as a long chain of interactions. Interactions in which each person is just doing the best they can to get their needs met.

And at some point in the chain, someone unintentionally does something that isn’t fully satisfying for the other person. And this second person responds in a way that’s designed to care for the need that wasn’t met.

But when we are hurt, angry, or experiencing some other “negative” emotion, our set of readily-available responses (let’s call them our “in pain responses”) is different than when we are feeling peaceful and connected.

And our “in pain” responses generally trigger hurt, anger or some other “negative” emotion in the other person.

So who started it?

The person who unintentionally triggered pain thinks the other person started the argument.

And the person who first responded in pain thinks the unintentional trigger-er started the argument.

But neither one actually wanted an argument. They were just doing the best they could to meet their needs in the relationship.

The Good News

The good news is that because no one ever intends to start an argument, anyone can stop it – and at any point!

There are two main ways to do this:

  1. Can you hear the need(s) the other person is trying to care for in the words and actions you’re not enjoying? If so, reflecting back your guess about those needs can stop an argument in its tracks, and enable you to get back to connected conversation.
  2. If neither of you seems to be able to compassionately hear what’s important to the other, then taking a break can help reduce the amount of relationship “cleanup” you’ll need to do later. And it can give you the breathing space to recognize what’s important to you and what’s important to the other person, making it possible to reconnect.

Two Cautions

  1. It is important to address the issue.
    If we take a break, it is important to ensure that we invest the time and energy to compassionately care for our own unmet needs, so that we are able to compassionately connect to what’s important to the other person. And then we need to re-engage and restore the damaged place in the relationship chain.
    Sometimes that involves setting a joint intention to do something differently in future.
    Sometimes it simply means expressing regret for the pain the other person experienced.
    But if the disconnect is not acknowledged and healed in some way, the relationship will be weakened. The amazing thing is that, once acknowledged and healed, the relationship can emerge even stronger and more vital than before!
  2. It’s important that both people’s needs are heard, understood, and valued.
    In many relationships, one person tends to be able to connect to the other person’s needs first, and so helps re-establish connection. There can be a temptation for this person not ask for their needs to be heard, out of a fear of triggering a renewal of the painful disconnection. But my experience is that relationships are not sustainable unless both people’s needs are consistently heard, understood, and valued.

Help with That

Would you like to have more skills for addressing disconnections – at work or at home?

Then I invite you to join us for the Effective Dialogue course being offered in person in Toronto Sat-Sun Nov 17-18, from 10 am to 5:30 pm each day.  (This course is also offered one-on-one by phone – see the links below for details).

You will learn:

  • The 5 key things you can prepare before any conversation, to help ensure it will start, continue, and end with connection.
  • The 5 signs to watch for during any conversation, and what to do when you see each one, to help guide things toward a mutually satisfying result. The kind of result that helps make sure your needs get met and stay met.
  • What to do when someone “blindsides” you with a conversation you’re not ready for. Something that maintains connection, but keeps your options open, and helps ensure you don’t agree to something you’ll regret later.

For more information about the Effective Dialogue course   *  To register

Photo credit: © dacasdo –

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