You and your partner seem locked in a dispute, and neither of you are willing to back down and concede to the other. It’s a rather trivial matter involving which relatives to invite to a cousin’s baby shower. You don’t want to invite your partner’s sister because she tends to put a damper on the fun and you can’t imagine her playing along with the silly baby-themed games you have planned. Your partner insists the opposite, adding that not to invite her will create an impossible rift with the rest of the clan. The argument has gone on far longer than you like, but you’re determined to win.
Being able to land on the winning side of an argument is an ability that takes some practice. If you’re used to stomping your feet, pouting, or giving your opponent the cold shoulder, you’ve probably found that these childish methods don’t work. Research by Katharina Bernecker of the Leibniz-Institut fur Wissensmedien (Tubingen, Germany) and colleagues (2018) investigated the ways in which the relationship goals of couples in a long-term relationship influenced their nonverbal communication during conflict. By contrasting the so-called approach and avoidance goals in relationships, Bernecker et al. believed that they could predict the ways in which partners communicated through their body language either positive or negative messages. Obviously communicating positive messages should contribute to higher satisfaction both with the outcome of a conflict and long-term satisfaction overall.
As Berneker and her fellow researchers observe, it is important to focus on nonverbal communication because “nonverbal displays are, compared to verbal content, less intentionally controlled, and often perceived as a reflection of people’s authentic affective experience in a specific encounter or relationship” (p. 1). Determining how relationship goals influence nonverbal behavior, they reasoned, should therefore be important to understanding how partners in a couple can be more satisfied. The German study included 368 heterosexual couples in a relationship for at least one year, with some up to 60 years. The average length of relationship was 21 years and the average age of the sample was 48. Thus, these were couples who clearly were committed to being together and who had considerable experience with each other over time.
The key focus of the Berneker et al. study was on studying couples as they interacted in a situation involving a source of tension between them. The most frequent type of conflict involved communication, but the couples also disagreed in the areas of finances and annoying habits of the partner. Their interactions were videotaped and rated by observers in the areas of nonverbal communication that included positioning of the head (toward or away from the partner), movements of the head (such as nodding or head shaking), facial expressions (smiling or frowning), rotation of the torso (toward or away from partner), tilt of the upper body (forward lean or upright), position of arms (open or folded), and amount of touching. Prior to the interaction, couples rated themselves on relationship goals that included approach (wanting to deepen the relationship) and avoidance (trying to stay away from conflicts. Partners also rated their relationship satisfaction.
As the authors predicted, couples who wanted to enhance their relationship through approach motivation showed more positive nonverbal communication and those who preferred avoidance were more likely to withdraw nonverbally and show lower positive involvement. Behind the avoidant individual’s motivation, the authors maintain, is the perception that conflict represents threat to the relationship, rather than an opportunity to deepen the relationship further.
Turning now to the question of how to win at one of these conflicts, the German study suggests that it’s all about motivation. Even if you’re in an argument with a person with whom you’re not romantically involved, you can not only come out ahead by getting your way, but also enjoy the outcome of an improved relationship. With this in mind, look now at these 10 strategies:
1. Try to arrange a face-to-face discussion. The Berneker et al study showed that nonverbal communication plays an important role in conflict resolution. Even if it’s only a Skype call, by being able to see the other person, and have that person see you, can help you make more on-the-spot adjustments than can an email or text message.
2. Wait until the right time and place. Because you would be better off meeting in person rather than through the written word, or even a phone call, time your discussion to allow for enough face-to-face interaction to be able to work the whole argument through.
3. Focus on what’s important. Approach motivation was an important factor in the study of German couples. Looking at conflict as an opportunity to enhance and strengthen the bonds you have with the other person may help drive your nonverbal behavior in a more positive direction.
4. Frame your argument with “I” statements. This is a well-known tactic in couples communication, and can be applied to any argument rather than just disputes in a long-term romantic relationship. You avoid putting the other person on the defensive by stating your own perceptions of the situation.
5. Listen to the other person’s point of view. You want to win the argument, but rather than barrel ahead with your own side of the story, hear what the other person has to say. You may find that you don’t disagree all that much, but strategically this will also allow you to plan your path toward victory.
6. Anticipate the other person’s objections. If you time your dispute properly, you’ll have lined up ahead of time the complaints your opponent might have. This will allow you to think about how you will best state your case.
7. Avoid attacking your opponent. Some of the negative body language observed in the Berneker et al. study can also be applied to arguments in general. Verbal attacks will be counterproductive because they will make the other person angry; nonverbal attacks will have the same result.
8. Be ready to make small concessions. As you anticipate what your opponent will say, and then listen with an open mind to what he or she actually says, you can go into the situation ready to come up with an alternative plan that will be acceptable to both of you.
9. Test out your ideas with a neutral party. In that baby shower scenario, it’s possible that only you feel this way about the cousin-in-law. Ask another relative if perhaps you’re overreacting and if so, it may be best for you to follow Step 8 and make that concession.
10. Be nice when you win. If everything has gone according to plan, you’ll have won the argument and the conflict will be resolved. In order to keep that approach motivation going for you and your partner, be a good sport. The next time, it may be your partner who wins, and you would certainly appreciate the same response.
Arguments don’t have to erode a relationship. Avoiding them doesn’t seem to be the best way to keep your relationship strong. If you follow these steps in engaging productively, both you and your partner’s long-term fulfillment will benefit.