Jason R. Waller
4 Ways to Communicate Without Conflict
What it means to be “unarguable” in your communication.
Last night, I caught myself asking my wife, “Hey, did you leave these plates in the sink?” Although I was a bit frustrated, there was no emotion in my voice. Still, in that moment I could see a conflict starting to unfold as her face tensed up. Luckily, working as a coach with my executive clients (and, especially, founder teams) has taught a much better way of communicating. I quickly added, “Let me rephrase what I just said,” and proceeded to share a more direct request.
Not only was conflict avoided that night, but it became a moment of sweet connection and understanding for us. She takes a lot of credit for that outcome, but it was built on how I chose to communicate with her. More accurately, it was built on how I chose not to communicate with her.
We can’t control all aspects of conflict and argument with others. But we can control how we engage with them and how we invite them to engage with us. Here are the four ways to do just that. Spoiler alert: number four is the most important and ties them all together.
1. Observations, not accusations
The first area to take a long look at is our intentions behind what we say. Often, when we start off a conversation rooted in conflict, there’s a little seedling of accusation planted by one or both parties. “Accusation” is simply blame put into context. It says “you did this” or “you didn’t do this” or “this is your fault!”
Here’s a tricky twist, though — most of us don’t say anything that direct, most of the time. We human beings are social creatures and we’re interested in preserving our social bonds. So what do we do? We say something more passive or more indirect so that we don’t have to own the full weight of an uncomfortable accusation. I call these buried accusations, and they’re dangerous to relationships.
In this case, I buried my frustration in a question. I didn’t say “Hey, you left the plates in the sink!” I asked, “Did you leave the plates in the sink?” Even though I knew that she did and, what’s worse, she knew that I knew that she did. I also could have gone a more passive-aggressive route and muttered, to nobody in particular, “Oh, somebody left dishes in the sink again.” Sarcasm is another favorite: “Oh, I love it when I have to load the dishwasher.” Or jokes: “Hey, three dishes in the sink! That’s a new record, I know I have a medal around here somewhere…”
Get it? In each of these cases, I’m saying something that’s intended to convey the message to her without actually taking responsibility for the message. If I joke or ask a question, I get to pass a little of the responsibility for how it’s taken to her. And that is exactly the big problem. Inside “Hey, did you leave these plates in the sink?” I’ve encoded “Hey, you left the plates in the sink!” And inside that, maybe I’ve encoded “We agreed that you would do the dishes on Thursdays.” And inside that, maybe I’ve encoded “I’m frustrated that our agreement isn’t being kept.” And so on. And at each level, she has to fill in assumptions on my behalf and decode my message based on her context alone.
The alternative is to simply catch yourself being indirect and challenge yourself to not encode or bury the message. Focus on your observations and not on just passing on blame to the other person. They may still take blame on themselves, but that’s not up to you. As long as you can share a concrete observation, like “The dishes were left in the sink,” you’re at least not leaving the job of interpreting your statement up to them. It’s a start, but there are two more ways to improve the message here.
2. Present, not abstract
Here’s another way that we human beings avoid taking on the full weight of a message: we speak in the abstract. Abstract simply means anything that’s not in the here and now. This can feel a bit complicated, so let me try to explain.
Alternate realities or hypotheticals are examples of not being here in the conversation. In my example, this could be something like, “Why can’t you be the type of person who cleans up after themselves?” Or, “If you just put the dishes in the dishwasher right away, we wouldn’t have this issue.” Contrast this with the simple, right-here observation of “Dishes were left in the sink.”
Future tense and past tense are examples of not being now in the conversation. An example could be something like, “Next time, I really hope that you put the dishes away.” Or, “We agreed last week! You said you would do dishes on Thursdays.” The farther back in history you go, the more you’re in the courtroom presenting evidence to prove your case instead of in the conversation sharing your experience. This habit of traveling back in history to argue a case is so common that I often say past tense is the language of blame.
Keep your conversations present in the here and now as much as you can. If you notice your words drifting to somewhere else or somewhen else, come back to a concrete, present observation.
3. Precise, not absolute
A third way we get into trouble when communicating with others is by using absolute language. This might seem obvious, but it’s so common that we all let this language slip in from time to time.
Absolute language is any binary description of a situation. This is also called black-and-white language. Some of the most common binary pairs are right and wrong, true and false, always and never, and only and not. These all-or-nothing words paint other people into a corner and almost force them to either agree to your absolute descriptions or defend themselves. Hint: we usually choose to defend ourselves (and miss all of what the other person is trying to say).
Absolute language can feel innocent, especially when it’s applied to the situation or when it takes a tone of humility. Saying, “You know what, you’re right,” or, “What I said wasn’t true,” though, all carry the inherent message that there is only one winner and one loser in the situation. The risk in speaking this way is that it continues that precedent.
The most dangerous forms of absolute language, though, are focused on the person and take on a tone of arrogance. Saying, “You never put your dishes in the dishwasher,” or “You only ever clean up your own plates,” not only sets up a game of winners and losers, it pretty clearly names the other person as a loser. Again, the risk here is that backing someone into a corner with such a binary choice often defaults to defensiveness.
To get out of this trap, start first to notice absolute language in yourself and others. Always and never are on the absolute language’s most-wanted list. Then, challenge yourself (and others) to be more precise with your claim or complaint. Instead of stating that something always happens, articulate when it most often happens. Instead of stating that the other person is wrong, clarify which points you agree with and disagree with.
4. Unarguable, not arguable
The final point here is the most important. In fact, if you do this one then you’re almost sure to do the earlier three points by default. Simply put, it’s not being arguable with your language.
Arguable statements are any statements we can argue. It sounds simple, but this includes things that we often think are unarguable, like facts, data, stories, and history. Saying, “We agreed last week that you would put the dishes away on Thursdays,” is just as arguable as saying, “The sky is blue.” I could tell you that the sky is dark where I am, or that I’m colorblind, or that, “It’s not blue, it’s aquamarine!” This doesn’t mean that one of us isn’t right, or that one of us isn’t saying something more true, it just means that we can both argue about it until we’re blue (or aquamarine) in the face.
Unarguable statements, on the other hand, are things that are 100% in our domain and control. In fact, they can only ever be three things: our own thoughts, our own emotions, and our own sensations. These are all things that belong 100% to us and nobody else. Don’t get me wrong, people can still choose to argue with them, but it feels pretty different.
For example, we might share, “I’m noticing a belief that loading the dishwasher tonight was your responsibility.” The other person might choose to argue on whether or not loading the dishwasher was their responsibility, but they can’t argue that it’s your thought. Or you might share, “I’m feeling frustrated because there are dirty dishes left in the sink.” Again, we can argue about the dishes, but nobody can tell you that you’re not frustrated. Or, “I’m feeling a pit in my stomach when I think about the possibility of having an argument about the dishes again.” See where I’m going here?
The magic in stating your own unarguable experience isn’t that it gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card for blurting your judgments, it’s that it grounds the conversation in what’s happening to you. It encourages you to share your observations, in a present and precise way. And it invites others to do the same.
When you share your unarguable truth, you get to really express yourself and what you’re truly feeling. You offer the experience to the other person so that you can feel known and understood, not so that you can manipulate them into doing what it is you want them to do. It breaks down the passive-aggressive, abstract, black-and-white constructs that we’ve all learned to use, and replaces them with authentic expressions.
If you really want to remove conflict from your relationships, start by expressing yourself in an unarguable way. And as you start practicing, try using the phrase “I notice.” This can help soften your statements and make your experience more objective. E.g., “I notice I’m making up a story about my responsibility here,” or, “I notice that I’m feeling sad,” or, “I notice I have a lump in my throat.”
This last principle is so important that I put together a quick reference guide to help:
Take these ideas and experiment with applying them in your daily conversations, especially with your team in a work setting. I recommend going in reverse order, starting with being unarguable, not arguable. You may notice that the four things to watch out for are 4 A’s: accusations, abstract, absolute, and arguable. Try noticing which ones you gravitate towards most and start there.
I also want to acknowledge that this isn’t easy. We may choose to minimize conflict on our own, but it takes two to tango. The other person or persons might not be as quick to meet you where you are. Try having a deliberate conversation to make an agreement on how you can mutually work to remove conflict from your interactions, replacing it with connection.
I also want to acknowledge that every relationship has a culture of its own, and that this can be influenced by a broader culture, whether that’s our family, our religion, our ethnicity, or any number of things. Each culture has its own norms around how to communicate and how direct or indirect to be. Start this journey in a way that feels authentic to you and to your cultural backdrop.
Finally, after you’ve navigated away from your own 4 A’s and in your own way, practice making deliberate requests of the other person. Deliberate here means making requests on what the other person can actually change. It’s something they can wholeheartedly say yes or no to. I could never really ask my wife to want to put the dishes away. I could also never ask her to always put them away, no matter what was happening in her life. But I could reaffirm my earlier request and genuinely ask her: “Are you willing to try to put the dishes away on Thursdays?” And now we’re having a real conversation.
Good luck, and please let me know how it goes.
Originally published in Better Humans