Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
an Argumentative or Combative Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/arguer.htm

Updated  04/11/2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when the responder (a) gets their primary needs met well enough, and (b) both people feel respected enough.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.


      Arguing differs from problem-solving in that each person tries to "win" - so there is a "loser." Do you know a child or adult who often tries to hook you into a lose-lose argument or debate ("Yes, but..."). If so, how do you feel if you argue with them? Do you feel heard (vs. agreed with) and respected? What would you rather do than argue?

      The subselves ruling people who argue chronically or excessively may strive to...

  • replace boredom or painful self-awareness with external excitement, and/or to...

  • avoid scary intimacy and self-disclosure, and/or to...

  • reduce ceaseless shame and inferiority by "winning" every argument and feeling powerful.

Each of these suggest the person is ruled by a well-meaning false self.

      Few people are aware of false-self domination and wounds, or know what to do about them. Implication - instead of saying "Rosa loves to argue," or "Rosa always has to have the last word (or be right)," it's probably more accurate and compassionate to say "Rosa is wounded and ruled by a false self, and she doesn't know it."

      Possible responses to someone who argues or debates compulsively include first checking to make sure your own Competitior or Warrior/Amazon subselves haven't taken over your Self. Then get clear on...

  • how your partner's behavior affects you (impatience / irritation / disinterest / disdain...); and...

  • what specific behavior you need from this partner.

Then offer a hearing check like this...

"So you want me to understand that (whatever)."

      A common effect of a statement (not a question) like this is to "take the wind out of her/his sails" because you've just ended the debate by not arguing. Beware - if you (your false self) use this as a ploy to win, you'll probably lose.

      When you get agreement to your hearing check ("Yeah..." / a nod / "Right..."), then assert your needs respectfully and firmly, and expect "resistances." For example:

"(Name), I just need you to hear my point of view. I don't need you to agree with me (if that's true). Can you give me a hearing check now?"

      Other options...

"(Name), when you need to argue and debate with me, I eventually get weary and  tune you out. I'd rather problem-solve, or agree to disagree. Will you do that?"

"(Name), are you aware of how often you argue or fight?" If I say "black," you say "No, white." We never solve anything, and I don't much feel like debating with you."

      And a follow up to that is - calmly, not sarcastically...

"(Name), you're debating (or arguing) again..." You can also use a neutral hand gesture (like an upraised fist) that you both know means the same thing.

      Expect resistance (e.g. an argument) without judgment, acknowledge it respectfully with a hearing check, and calmly repeat your assertion as often as needed. If a partner dismisses or minimizes your response and need/s, see your response-options to hearing check , aggression, competition, and egotism after you finish this.

      Notice your reaction to these options. Are you motivated to try them? How do they compare  with your usual reaction to argumentative people? Recall our (or your) definition of "an effective response to a problem partner."

      Here's another option for responding to an argumentative person...

The "I'm Right!" Exercise

      Are there kids or adults in your life with whom you "argue?" Do each of you get focused on "winning," getting "your way," and/or "being right"? In most cases, such contests are lose-lose, because both combatants feel disrespected, unheard, and frustrated. Better options are win-win problem-solving, or - in the case of *values* conflicts - agreeing respectfully to disagree.

       Try this safe, powerful way to illustrate the silliness and futility of "I'm right! No, I am!" battles:

  • Agree you have an argument or power struggle, without blame or guilt;

  • Stand and face your partner from about 12" away. Each of you make an "L" shape with your right arm so your forearms are vertical and touching.

  • Clasp your right hands gently, and hold comfortable eye contact.

  • One of you start by saying with some firmness "I'm right." As you do, rotate both your arms 90 degrees to horizontal. Don't use physical strength and don't resist - this is not a physical contest. Do not smile.

  • With steady eye contact, the second person says "No, *I'M* right!" and rotates both your arms 180 degrees to horizontal.

  • The first person says more forcefully "NO! I Am RIGHT!" and rotates both arms 180 degrees to horizontal.

  • Repeat this sequence four or more times, escalating the tone and power of your voice and the speed of arm-rotation each time. Keep steady eye contact, and don't joke or grin.

  • See what you feel and think, and discuss this together as teammates. Usually you'll both wind up laughing...

       This exercise vividly illustrates (vs. explains) the pointlessness of arguing - i.e. trying to persuade each other "You're wrong and I'm right!"  A variation is to say "I (did 'x'" and rotate) and the other person says "No, you didn't," and rotates back)  Try that for 6-8 times with good eye contact, and see what you feel. This exercise can be specially helpful with stubborn (insecure and/or bored) kids.


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common irritating social behaviors. This article offers ways to respond to an argumentative or combative person without getting into a lose-lose power struggle. The options are based on your...

  • putting your Self in charge of your personality,

  • maintaining a mutual respect attitude,

  • being clear on your feelings, needs, and personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the communication skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

The article also illustrates a useful exercise demonstrating the pointlessness of arguing. 

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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