How to Argue with a Middle-Aged Man

Tips on how to argue with your spouse and have more productive arguments.

By Jay Heinrichs
Good idea. [Trick No. 2: If you can't think of an effective reply, simply agree. Try repeating what your opponent says but in a slightly less appealing way.] While we're talking about fixing things, we need to find a way to replace our old Taurus. [Trick No. 3: Broaden the issue. It's no longer custom windows versus cheaper windows, or windows versus no windows. It's windows and motor vehicles.]DOROTHY:[Smiles]ME: What?DOROTHY: I see what you're doing. You're broadening the issue. [Trick No. 4: Throw your opponent off balance by naming his attempt to manipulate you.]ME: Yes, but I'm not making up the fact that the Taurus is no longer safe to drive. [Trick No. 5: Bring up something near and dear to your opponent. Dorothy is big on safety.]DOROTHY: I'll tell you what. We can put the expensive windows downstairs where everyone sees them and buy the cheaper kind with the vinyl inserts for upstairs. That will give you some money toward a truck. [Trick No. 6: Make your choice seem like the moderate, reasonable one.] ME: How much money toward a truck?DOROTHY: I'll price the cheaper windows. So, great! [Gets up from her chair] The house gets what it needs, and you're on your way to getting a truck. [Trick No. 7: Act as if the decision has already been made.]ME: Wait a minute...DOROTHY: The DVD you wanted came in the mail. [Trick No. 8: When in doubt, distract.] Arguing vs. FightingI decided to let her end the discussion and puttered off to find the DVD. It was her mother's money, after all, and I hadn't expected to get anything toward the truck.If you're appalled at this sort of manipulation, try using pure logic instead. Do it for a whole day and you may be surprised by the rising level of mutual anger.Let's get this straight: I'm advocating arguing, not fighting. There's a big difference between the two. You succeed in an argument when you persuade the other person. You win a fight when you dominate the enemy.One way to prevent an argument from turning into a fight is to spot those times when arguing is a bad idea. When one person spouts values ("If you just thought about what's right..."), the appropriate rhetorical response is to shut up. You can't change somebody's values in a single argument. Their mood, sure. Their mind, sometimes. But you're not going to transform their sense of right and wrong.Similarly, when a spouse brings up past atrocities ("I've never forgiven you for that"), it's best to change the subject. You can defend yourself, but it won't improve your relationship or get you what you want.To reach an accord, you have to switch topics away from values or blame and toward a choice. Instead of lecturing a husband on what a good man would do or dredging up old sins, you move toward a solution. ("The water on the bathroom floor isn't really the point, is it? The point is, how are we going to keep it from happening again?")In other words, all quarrels have to do with values, or guilt, or choice. Knowing the difference, and when to engage, is critical.Dorothy and I don't play nice all the time, but we have learned, in our debates, to use the greatest tool for consensus ever invented: We speak to the other's advantage. Instead of pronouncing that my choice is good for me, I tell her how it's good for her. Persuasion is not self-expression. It's a selfish act of sympathy.The truth is, Dorothy wins the arguments more often than not these days. She concedes artfully and takes the anger out of confrontations by focusing on choices instead of values or blame. In short, she has lifted argument from something to be feared to a useful little game. When she argues, she can be passionate, timely, and truly disarming, all of which I find rather sexy.And long may the seduction last.Tip: Switch the Tense When You ArgueHere's a remarkably simple way to take the anger out of arguments: Always use the future tense.Language using the past and present often focuses on who is right or wrong. The present tense, for instance, is perfect for name-calling ("You're acting like an adolescent") and sermonizing ("You have no right to speak to me that way"). It's an efficient way to drive each other mad.Choose the past tense for a forensic investigation of who left an empty milk bottle in the fridge. It's also terrific for bringing up ancient atrocities. ("Remember when I suggested ballroom dance lessons and you signed us up for computer programming?")The future tense puts the focus on choices and what's to your mutual advantage.

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