The art of arguing, part II: What are the key components of healthy, constructive arguments?

No yelling!

Just kidding. The rules of engagement are not a list of things not to do. I think this is another of the common misconceptions. There’s this idea that we have to be very adult about things, very cerebral, or else we won’t be having a “healthy conflict”. Though I do think a great deal of self awareness and self-regulation can really benefit conflict by smoothing it out and speeding it up, I think we get it wrong if we try to simply constrain or hide emotions that are present.


Healthy conflict has a few essential elements, but it’s worth saying at the outset that you can’t simply do these things just because you’ve heard about them. The simple things I’m going to mention aren’t tasks like folding the laundry, easy but boring and therefore often avoided. They are skilful and mindful tasks, more like a difficult sport or hobby. They require practice. And that means we have to go through a phase of being a novice, that awkward beginner stage, arguing in front of our colleagues or our partners or whomever, while we are on the road to achieving mastery.

Importantly, I’m not going to claim that communication is a skill. Rather, communication is an umbrella term that contains a number of discrete skills.

The first is self-awareness. Honest dialogue requires you to have the capacity to be honest with yourself. You can’t say what you mean if you don’t know what that is. It sounds simple, but consider your last difficult encounter: how easy was it for you to identify the cognition that brought you there, the emotions that initiated the argument, and the real-time emotions that came up for you during the argument? Our own self-expression needs to be of the highest quality of which we are capable, and that’s not about tone policing and vocabulary and other technical details from the “communication school of argument”. It’s about knowing what you’re feeling and thinking, so that you can simply say it out loud.

The second skill is self-regulation, but I don’t like that language because regulation is all about control which, in the realm of emotions, is all about making them smaller. I prefer to talk about this second essential component of good argument as “emotional mastery”. Mastery is about surfing the spectrum of our emotions both up and down, knowing which waves to let pass, which waves to get the most juice from, and which waves to protect ourselves and others from. Not everybody needs to regulate their emotions downward—many arguments are stunted, because people can’t or won’t access and experience and express the essential emotionality of their side. The story of self-regulation rarely helps us understand how to amplify, ride, or jettison emotions in real time. I firmly believe this element can really help us to achieve better outcomes in conflict.listeningThe third element is listening. I don’t mean hearing; I mean listening. And what I really mean is listening to things you don’t want to hear. Listening to things makes them real—you can keep hiding and avoiding things that you don’t know anything about. But when you listen, the things you actively take in can become a part of your reality. courageIf your partner finds you untrustworthy, and you make that a part of your reality, it’s going to be very destabilizing and very scary. There are consequences to this new reality that may not have been a part of your life only one second ago. Real listening, therefore, requires resiliency and courage. And those are things which must be developed over time, both as an individual and in the context of the relationship in which the argument is taking place. Safety and grounding, resilience and courage, are the things that give us the freedom to accept the wounds that are always a possibility in real conflict, in real listening.