Donna Smaldone
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Thursday / September 15 / 2011

Learning the art of argument: Lesson #3: Choose the right words

Um, yeah… you DO realize there’s a lot of pressure writing a post entitled, “choose the right words”, right? Okay, here we go.

It’s not a megaphone you need in order to be heard, it’s the right words. Thank you for joining me for this series to learn the art (specifically your art) of argument. LESSON #3: Choose the right words

Remember the “Can you hear me now?” Verizon commercials? There’s an interesting-in-itself piece of that story revolving around the life of Verizon actor Paul Marcarelli, who is gay and has had to deal with people spewing gay slurs at him – but that exploration is for another time (or, more here if you can’t wait).

If you want your partner to answer “yes” to the question, “can you hear me now?”, then you need to put down your megaphone and instead, choose the right words.

Have you ever observed a guy answer his phone, listen for a minute or two, slump his shoulders in a “here we go again” defeated kind of way and inevitably, hold the phone away from his ear as she yells at him? It doesn’t matter what she’s trying to convey. He can’t hear a word of it.

Not only is her yelling not getting her message across (because let’s face it, who gleans anything from someone screaming at them?), it’s causing the love of her life to recoil. Her yelling is demeaning him. She is not drawing him closer to her, she’s repelling him.

Put down your megaphone, friends. You don’t need to be louder to be heard, you need to be relevant, vulnerable, and emotionally naked. Instead of spending time trying to determine what you can get from your partner, spend thoughtful time determining what you can give him. You love him, right? Then, edify him.

Learn to speak the language of your lover. Your overarching goal should be to communicate your love and affection for him. If your overarching goal is to fulfill your own demands – change your goal. When you switch gears and refocus your energies, everyone ends up winning. Trust me. Give it a try. I dare you.

The words you choose matter. “James left” communicates to most people, “James took off… he abandoned us” (read: what a jerk!) Whereas James leaving is really just the logistic of what happened when James AND Mary (together) made the decision to divorce. There’s truth to the whole idea of, ‘ two sides to every story’ – an important thing to remember when hearing (or telling) a story.

Often, the problem isn’t the words themselves, but the intent or delivery mechanism behind them. Don’t be deceived and think, “he’s tough, he can take it” or “his skin is thick, he won’t be affected.” YOU WILL BE WRONG. And the lasting effects may be ruinous.

When you choose words of destruction (i.e.: “I hate you”, “You’re a good-for-nothing”, or any painful point you can throw in his face) you do so with the intent of wounding. Those are the ‘obvious’ harmful words. It’s when you innocuously use poorly chosen words that wounding happens more as a happenstance than a direct assault. Perhaps unintentional, but equally as damaging.

THINK before you speak.

Take the time to move out of your own way. Do it intentionally. Stop wallowing in your own space. In a crisis situation you will always act out what you’ve practiced – so practice choosing constructive words (the ones you’d be okay with appearing on the front page of your hometown newspaper).

Words matter. Choose wisely.

Don’t miss the rest of this series:
Learning the art of argument: Lesson #1: Feelings are valid
Learning the art of argument: Lesson #2: Understand your arguing roots
Learning the art of argument: Lesson #3: Choose the right words
Learning the art of argument: Lesson #4: Control anger escalation

3 responses to “Learning the art of argument: Lesson #3: Choose the right words”

  1. Rick says:

    Awesome advice, Donna.

    Do people really say disrespectful things to those they supposedly love, like “I hate you” and “You’re good for nothing”? I’m stunned to learn that. Chris and I don’t argue a lot, but, when we do, I would NEVER EVER attack him personally like that because I know he doesn’t deserve it, no matter how angry I get. I know Chris is a wonderful human being with a valid point of view. And it just might be that, if I truly listen to what he says, I could see his point, and I might change my point as a result.

    Just yesterday, we had what I call a heated discussion about something we saw in the newspaper. He had his point of view, and I had mine. He didn’t have all the facts because he hadn’t read previous articles in the paper on the same subject that I had. In the end, we realized both of us held basically the position, but at no time did I insult demean him. In other words, it never became personal. You just don’t do that to someone you love.

    I love heated discussions with someone I know is smart and on-the-ball, like Chris is, and sometimes, we have to agree to disagree on specific topics. But because I respect him completely; I know I need to listen, not get out of control, and not rob him of his dignity and value as a human being.

    You’ve got me thinking about my relationship with this series, and I like that. I like that a lot.

    • Donna Smaldone says:

      Believe it or not, Rick… ‘yes’, some people intentionally use words as weapons. Often when people feel backed into a corner, they start lashing out with words to wound. It’s particularly troubling when it’s with someone they really care about because then they are “armed” with the things they know can wound the other person at a deeply personal level.

      I’m glad to hear you and Chris don’t struggle with that kind of harshness. Being together for nearly 20 years, it’s evident you’ve taken the time to learn how to disagree with one another. That willingness is one of the reasons your relationship is so strong.

      Thanks so much for your sharing your thoughts, Rick.

      Love, Donna

  2. Rick says:

    Just one more point on this subject, Donna (and my apologies for the typos in my previous comment. I generally proofread and edit everything before I hit “submit comment;” I don’t know what happened in this case).

    You write about how wounded one is likely to feel if his partner tells him he’s stupid, etc. I honestly don’t know how a relationship is repaired after that. Sure, you’ll go on as a couple, and life will appear normal. But, in my mind, it can’t be, and probably never will be. Because, in the heat of an argument, things were said that were truly hurtful at a personal level. If someone said that to me, how do I know he didn’t really feel that way? Little by little, if this continued to happen, it would begin to break me down, and I’d have to wonder if we really respect and love each other after all.

    Here’s how I feel about this: When arguing with anyone, partner or otherwise, never say anything you can’t take back. Never say anything that will inevitably drive a small wedge between you. Because the lasting damage you’ve done, and the hard work you’ll have to do to recover from it, if that can even be done, may still not take you back to where you were before.

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