How Shall We Argue?

by Linda Anderson Krech and Gregg Krech

It doesn’t take much to set off a spark with a spouse, at least around certain issues. He’s not ready on time, again. She’s buying things they can’t afford, again. The history of our argue1.jpgarguments remains in the air around us and creates the conditions for sparks to fly, with very little provocation sometimes. In merely an instant the room flashes red, our temperature soars, and our thoughts race wildly ahead. Is there any hope for a different outcome at a moment like this, a better resolution than in the past. . . or are we destined to repeatedly crash and spin in the same old go-round, with anger leading us where we don’t want to go?

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and psychology and Robert Glaser, Ph.D., professor of microbiology, immunology and internal medicine, a husband and wife team at Ohio State University, have spent more than a decade studying the way married couples argue. Their findings provide . . .

extra impetus to learn a better way, based on the health ramifications of destructive arguing patterns. “What they found is that the nastier, more sarcastic and more hostile a couple is when they fight, the higher their hormone levels rise and the more their immune functions are hampered” (Natural Health, Nov./Dec. ’98). The commonly held belief, that venting anger is good for us, has turned out to be a myth.

Research is now teaching us that anger takes a real toll on us physically. “With your heart pumping so much blood, your blood pressure rises, and the lining of your coronary arteries begins to erode from the constant current of the surging blood,” says Redford Williams, M.D., director of behavioral research at Duke University in North Carolina and author of “Anger Kills.”

So it is not just the way we express the anger that can take a physical toll on us, it is the experience of anger itself. According to Williams, “cortisol and adrenaline stimulate fat cells to empty their contents into your bloodstream where they are picked up by the liver and converted into cholesterol. After years of anger, this cholesterol buildup can block the flow of blood to the coronary artery, starving your heart muscle.” These cortisol findings were supported by another study at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, Calif. Not only did the cortisol levels in the blood soar as a result of anger, but the IgA levels were decreased, thereby compromising our immune system’s first line of defense against invading bacteria and viruses.

So it appears that anger itself sends a real, measurable physiological punch to our bodies. And on top of that, our expression of anger, if done poorly, wallops us as well. What to do. . . given the nature of our minds and our lives and the world. . . what is controllable within this arena of anger? Certainly not the experience of anger itself. What then?

Arguing Constructively

Here are some ideas from our ToDo Institute courses for improving your problem-solving efforts, while in the grips of an angry moment. There’s no doubt that changing our ways of responding in such moments is a real challenge, but that’s part of the fun. Behavior is controllable — remember that old and rusty idea? And don’t forget about purpose. There is often a bigger purpose that goes beyond the angry moment — whether it is becoming a good partner, a commitment to non-violence, or the development of a loving relationship with your partner.

1. Inquiry Before Condemnation. Sometimes something the other person did, or didn’t do, stirs up angry and resentful feelings. Rather than lashing out, try beginning by getting the facts about what happened. Perhaps there is a legitimate excuse for why he was late, or why she didn’t call, or why he made that comment. Before you judge the situation, make sure you truly understand the situation.

2. Breathe. Start with basics and remember to breathe during the argument — long, slow breaths before speaking, while pausing, while listening. These breaths can help to restore your presence of mind. Don’t underestimate the power of such a simple act. That pause for a slow in-breath can make the difference between speaking wisely or lashing out hurtfully.

3. Use Your Voice Consciously. The way you speak, your volume and your tone of voice, have everything to do with the way your message will be received and the success you will have in resolving the conflict.
Be very attentive to the volume in which you are speaking. Raising your voice is a very provocative thing to do, and often escalates the situation. In fact, making a special effort to speak softly may be what is called for.
A sarcastic bite to your words can override the most constructive content of your words. Avoid taking on a sarcastic tone at all costs, although the temptation to do so may be quite strong.

4. Don’t Interrupt. Interruptions can be very provocative. By cutting into the other person’s message rather than allowing it to come to its own conclusion, you are communicating a sense of urgency that can automatically escalate the situation. Just the fact that you are interrupting, regardless of the content of your words, sends the message that you are more interested in being heard than in listening. Take some breaths and listen to the message that is being delivered to you. Don’t allow your sense of urgency to get the upper hand.

5. Take a break. If you feel unable to cope skillfully with the situation, given the degree of your agitation at the moment, you might suggest a temporary break from the discussion. Take a walk, clean the bathroom, exercise, etc… Live for a while with things unfinished, then revisit the argument later, possibly with a fresh perspective. As you shift your attention elsewhere, you may find that your heated emotions may cool off a bit.

Preventive Maintenance

Most of us know what it’s like to get into an argumentative streak. At times the smallest gesture can stir up anger. A particular tone of voice, a chore forgotten, a mistake made, a poor choice of words — we can develop the habit of critically evaluating our partner’s performance and become quick to react. When will she ever learn? How could he be so insensitive? We should not have to put up with this — it’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s certainly not what we had in mind. Whether you bicker often with your partner, or have occasional blow-ups as well, the following suggestion might help to minimize the arguments and tension and create more peace between you.

Reflect on your relationship each week using the Naikan framework of self-reflection. In good times and in bad. Carve out a thirty minute niche for yourself, when you can concentrate without interruption. Write your reflections in a notebook and begin the process. The point of the exercise is to develop a stronger awareness of what it is like for your partner to deal with, or live with, or be with. . .you. Compare the give and take, using your own recollections, and try to understand, as best you can, what your partner’s experience might be like.

What did you receive from your partner this week?
List any and all gifts or services you can think of. Look for small details, snapshots in time, when a kind word or deed may have occurred. Calculate any income contributed, any skills or knowledge used in your life together that week. Look underneath the surface and around the corners of your life for ways that you benefitted from your partner’s existence that week.

What did you give to your partner?
List any and all gifts or services you can think of that you believe your partner benefitted from. Use the same standards and scope as described in the first question above.

What troubles or difficulties did you cause to your partner?
List any ways that you think your partner may have been troubled by your presence in his or her life that week. Were you late? Did you speak angrily about him? Did you criticize her? Did you burn the toast? Squash his enthusiasm? The purpose of this question is look for the impact that you are having on this other person. Did your words or actions stimulate fear, anger, disappointment, or sadness? Even if you feel perfectly justified in your actions, please include them on the list. It’s not about right or wrong, but rather about interconnectedness and impact.

It is so much easier to judge others, to be self-righteous and critical, when we are unaware of our own shortcomings. Arguments are a common end-result. However, when we stay in touch with the ways that we are imperfect, when we remember the mistakes we’ve made, the poor judgment we’ve used and the bad habits that we ourselves have. . . our responses to the transgressions of others may soften.

Doing Naikan on a regular basis can help to prevent a lot of arguments and it can reduce the intensity of those that do occur. It can take the bitterness out of our words and lead us in the direction of more constructive arguing. The nature of human relationships will always involve some level of conflict or disagreement. To eliminate it completely is not realistic. But it is possible to use our relationships with others as a vehicle for growth and character development. The arguments, and emotions that accompany them, become part of the course work. Stay alert! Classes can begin at anytime.

“You drive me crazy,
with everything you do and do not do.
I love you sooooooo much –
I’m gonna drive you crazy too!”
— Greg Brown

Gregg Krech is the Director of the ToDo Institute in Monkton, Vermont and one of the leading authorities on Japanese psychology in the U.S. For the past ten years Gregg has been the editor of Thirty Thousand Days, a publication that explores the relationship between psychology, spirituality and purposeful living. He is the author of several books including the award-winning Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press 2002).

Linda Anderson Krech, MSW, helped to apply Morita and Naikan methods to those with mental illness for over ten years. She is now on staff at the ToDo Institute and co-author of A Finger Pointing to the Moon and A Concise Little Guide to Getting Things Done.


1. Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World that Pulls Us Apart by William J. Doherty, PhD (The Guilford Press, New York 2001)

2. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert by John M. Gottman, PhD and Nan Silver (Three Rivers Press, New York 1999)

3. Naikan: Gratitude, Grace & the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection by Gregg Krech (Stone Bridge Press, California 2001)



Please send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Choose what you're looking for easier.

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?