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Keeping cool when holiday table conversations turn to quarrels

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With the holidays in full swing, no doubt most of us will find ourselves in the company of family and friends having all manner of conversations. There will be meals shared around a table, and if the guests have not been in recent contact, lots of catching up taking place. Inevitably, disagreements, debates and tensions arise and the potential for disastrous discussions occur.

We’ve all been there, and without a doubt, we will find ourselves in the same spot again: Trying to hold our ground with an argumentative person. In a cultural climate where self-expression is encouraged, Americans have grown accustomed to becoming assertive and outspoken about any and every detail that is up for debate. But we often find ourselves engaged in conversations with others who simply need to be right – whether they are or not. The discussion quickly turns combative and territorial as our “challenger” pulls out all the stops to discount our point of view. These exchanges can be very stressful, but they need not make you feel defeated.

Rather than looking at an argument as a vocal beating. It’s important to note that to be skilled in argumentative behavior is different than being verbally aggressive. Think of the contrast between an experienced trial attorney strategically arguing a case before a jury and a school bully who torments classmates with disrespect and unkind words. Verbal aggressiveness can cause grief, deteriorate relationships and damage the self-esteem of another. Effective argument can be an instrument to help solve problems, diffuse anger or shed light on a complicated subject matter.

Aggressive behavior is often a learned method of dealing with a disagreement. Some people are raised to avoid conflict, while others can’t wait to engage in any conceivable debate. In fact, in some cultures verbal disputes are commonplace and are considered fodder for stimulating dialogue. Heated arguments here are viewed as exhilarating and thought provoking. But even in less confrontational societies, individuals can often react when a discussion presents a perceived threat, and they try to reduce what they fear, be it real or not. That underlying dread or fear can turn a valid argument into an aggressive verbal assault.

Objectively, sometimes disagreements can seem so petty. A dispute about a topic may appear non-threatening at face value (say a discrepancy about the dates of the Renaissance Era), yet an aggressive person can become reactive simply trying to make a point. This “challenger” is likely motivated by a drive to be right, a learned behavior by which those “in the know” are seemingly rewarded or acknowledged.

Yet just as some might think they gain social points for always being right or “winning” a squabble, there are others who view any argument as painful or uncomfortable. You may have previously felt powerless against an aggressive person who tried to strong-arm you into thinking the way they do. Too many rough experiences or losing battles and a timid person soon learns to flee from any hint of a verbal debate. Both timidity and aggressiveness are two opposing styles that are ineffective in a constructive argument. Whether you’re more on the shy side or tend to be belligerent, in a conflict getting the results you want boils down to your conversational approach.

Those who are highly assertive have acquired the tools to engage in verbal contests; they have experience in making a case, supporting a position and diffusing an opposing opinion. But those who may be low in assertive behavior lack the verbal tools to handle disagreements and can sometimes resort to making personal attacks on the “opponent” as a strategy. Generally, they feel frustrated and turn to that aggressive behavior; they hope to win by intimidation. Managing a heated debate in a mature and polite manner is a social skill that can be developed whether you rate high or low in assertive behavior.

While volumes have been written about argument competence, there are a few key points to keep in mind when attempting to resolve a conflict:

1) Keep low blows and personal attacks out of the discussion and stick to the matter at hand. If your “opponent” tries to put personal attack over on you, be the big person; rather than digress by defending yourself, bring the discussion back to the issue. This strategy, however, does not mean you have to endure verbal abuse. If you are harmed or violated, simply refuse further discussion.

2) Diffuse your own aggression and be responsive. Request that the person with whom you disagree offer you the same courtesy. Use respectful language and try as best as you can to valid your listener and some of his or her views.

3) Try to find any hint of agreement, and capitalize on that. You may announce, “We both seem to agree about the result we want, but let’s work through the obstacles, point-by-point, that can keep us from meeting our goal.”

4) Keep your focus on solving the problem, not on proving who is right and who is wrong.

5) Be open-minded and consider the other person’s point of view. Perhaps with you defensiveness down, he or she may actually have a valid point.

6) Allow the other person to present his or her opinion without feeling the need to interrupt them. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be heard, and if you’re a good listener, you may help diffuse some of the emotion behind the argument.

7) Be nice. Nothing can squelch a discussion faster than rudeness or disrespect. Even the person you’re speaking with is in your opinion off the deep-end, you can state why you disagree in a non-threatening and kind manner. Remember that you can be assertive and self-assured and still be courteous.

8) If you can curtail a debate by simply finding the correct answer, save yourself the trouble of a dispute and just look up the information you need. The exact dates of the Renaissance Era can be “Googled” and you can lay that disagreement to rest.

You can win an argument with someone who is verbally aggressive by staying focused and rational. To be effective at arguing your case, you must practice and establish a personal style and by keeping your own ego under control. Don’t shy away from a debate, but consider every opportunity for a lively discussion to be a teaching tool. With your own aggression out of the equation, seek to support your position and discuss opposing opinions in a matter-of-fact, non-threatening fashion. Let those who are verbally aggressive dig their own pit as you maintain your newfound composure and self-assurance during a disagreement. If you can navigate an effective argument, you can not only enjoy your holiday visits, but will succeed in your career and personal life as you learn to aim for what you want, defend what you believe, and pursue your conversational goals with purpose and ambition.

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