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Category: Communication / Topics: Civility Communication Relationships

'Winning' an Argument

by Ken Potts

Posted: June 30, 2019

It's not always the mot important thing…

I'm not particularly a fan of 20th Century limericks, but there's one by Ogden Nash that I use every so often in the couples counseling I do.

"To keep your marriage brimming, With love in the loving cup, Whenever you're wrong admit it; Whenever you're right shut up."

Though "shut up" is not a phrase I suggest we use as part of our everyday speech, it certainly makes the point here. Too often I see one partner or the other in a relationship taking great pleasure, even gloating, over the fact that they are right and their companions are wrong.

Now, to be honest, we all like being right. This is especially true when we've been involved in a lengthy, intense and perhaps heated argument; the sort of argument where there seems to be no middle ground; the sort of argument where only one person can be right and the other must be wrong.

And when our emotions are involved, when we feel threatened, or hurt, or angry, or defiant, or whatever, our being right can be even more rewarding.

Often underlying our emotional responses in such situations are deeper issues of self-worth. We may need to win an argument to bolster our sense of being intelligent, or respected, or valued. Our own sense of worth becomes all wrapped up in whether we can win this particular debate.

No matter what our underlying motivations, we will likely only make matters worse when we go to any length to point out how right we are (and, in contrast, how wrong our partners are).

We may communicate our satisfaction in the tone of our voice, the expression on our face, or the words we use.

Out where I grew up, they sometimes talked about people "strutting around like a bantam rooster" in such situations (it's been a while since I've seen a rooster around here, though, so that analogy may not be all that helpful).

If we ask the people closest to us, I'll bet they can come up with a list of things we do when we've won an argument and want everybody else to know it.

We've probably all been on the receiving end of such self-satisfied posturing. Even if we know we are wrong, it sure doesn't help much when somebody else rubs it in for the next 15 minutes (or 15 years).

We wind up resenting those people and will try to distance ourselves from them. We may try to avoid them altogether, though in marriage that's a bit hard to do.

More often, our resentment goes underground and poisons our relationships for days, weeks, or even years. All of that hardly helps us build or maintain a healthy intimacy.

Though Nash's advice in such situations is to just "shut up," there is another alternative. When the argument has reached the point where it is clear to everyone that we're right, we can also show a bit of humility and grace. A simple, but sincere, statement like "Hey, don't worry about it; I'm wrong plenty of times, too," or "That wasn't easy to sort out -- thanks for hanging in there with me," can begin to heal the damage often done by such arguments.

Two other thoughts that come to mind: first, most arguments don't have a right or wrong resolution. Usually the truth is somewhere in the middle. We need to be open minded, flexible and humble when it comes to most disagreements.

Second, as Nash suggests, when we are wrong we need to admit it. Nothing gets us past an argument more quickly than if one of us can honestly and sincerely say "I'm wrong." Those are incredibly powerful words.

Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of SamaraCare Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove, Illinois.

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Posted: June 30, 2019

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