How do you start an argument? How do you finish one? I’ve been thinking about those questions lately. It’s not because I’ve been arguing a lot but because I’ve been thinking about how we make decisions and decision-making often involves arguing.
Here’s how not to start an argument: walk into someone’s office and unload on him or her. That happened to me more than a few times during my career. It usually ended badly. When someone unloads on me, I find it difficult to listen dispassionately. Often, I strike back. I’m good with words, including mean-spirited ones.
Equally important, how do you know if an argument is over? I used to bump into colleagues occasionally and wonder, “Am I still mad at him? Is he still mad at me? How should I act?” When I’m thinking about questions like these, I’m not thinking about effective communication.
I think my grandparents, Grover and Addie, had an effective way to deal with these situations. When one was irritated with the other, he or she opened the conversation by saying, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” It was always in a neutral tune of voice. The phrasing was also neutral; it didn’t say, “I’m right and you’re wrong and I’m about to prove it.” Rather, it said, “We need to have a discussion and the outcome of that discussion may be that I’m right or may be that you’re right. But we need to clear the air.”
If Grover started the bone-to-pick discussion, Addie would typically respond by saying, “What’s the matter?” also in a neutral tone of voice. Grover would then lay out his case in an almost lawyer-like fashion. Addie listened essentially until Grover laid out his entire case. She rarely interrupted. (Grover did the same when Addie started the bone-to-pick conversation). Then they talked back and forth. From my kid’s perspective, it seemed like they both got equal time.
As they concluded their discussion, one would often apologize to the other. It didn’t matter if it was Grover or Addie doing the apologizing. The other person would always say, “Apology accepted.” And that was the end of it. This simple phrase meant a lot of things, like: “OK, the storm is over, the clouds have parted, we don’t need to re-visit this again, and, if we ever get in an argument again, I promise I won’t dredge this up and throw it at you, so let’s get on with life.” That’s a lot of meaning to pack into two words.
As a little kid looking on, it all seemed so simple and straightforward. Now I marvel at their wisdom and their self-control. Between the beginning and the end of their argument, I don’t really know if they fought “fairly” or not. But I do know that they delimited their arguments. There was a clear start and a clear stop. There were no ambushes; there was no lingering resentment. Just a simple argument and a clear resolution. Perhaps that’s why they stay married for so many years.