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Arguing with the people you love? How to have a healthy family dispute

Prince William and Prince Harry looking at each other and smiling.
All families have disputes. REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Unlike Britain’s royal family, most of us don’t have the option to move to another country when we don’t see eye to eye. But most of us have likely experienced disagreements with loved ones.

Conversations are designed to do things – to start some action, and complete it – whether it’s a service transaction, an invitation to coffee or reassurance on a bad day. Our uniquely complex communicative system has evolved to help us get things done in the social world.

Arguments are part of this complex system. They can be unavoidable, necessary or even productive. But they can also be difficult.

It can be hard to know what to do when tensions are high and harsh words are flying, particularly when it involves someone you’re close to. But research on how disputes unfold – and conversation more generally – offers some ideas about the best way to handle one.

What is a dispute?

There are many words for disagreeing, and there are plenty of academic theories describing what disputes are and why they happen. But arguments are not abstract models. They’re lived in, breathed in, sweated in and talked (or sometimes shouted) into being.

Research focusing on how disputes actually happen shows they’re characterised by three types of features. First are the vocal features, which include talking in a higher pitch, louder and faster. Then, there are embodied features such as aggressive gestures and avoidant stances, such as turning away from someone. Finally, there are interactional features such as talking over each other, not listening or metatalk – comments about the conversation as it’s happening.

Displays of emotion such as displeasure or anger, are also common. Participants might accuse each other of emotions or label their own emotions.

Disputes happen for several reasons. What each person is doing can vary, from complaints and accusations to demands, threats or resistance.

They can be about many things – familial obligations, what to have for dinner, politics or how to plan a holiday. Luckily, disputes share elements with each other and with conversation generally – so you don’t have to invent new strategies every time you’re caught in one.

Affiliation and alignment

When bickering with a friend or family member, there are ways to make them feel like you’re still on their side even if you disagree. If you can keep these in mind, and use them at the right time, you might stop your dispute from escalating into something harder to mend.

The first thing is affiliation, which means support for the other person or their view of things.

Affiliation involves phrasing what you say so it’s best understood and easier to respond to. For example, saying “you’ve been to France before, right?” invites someone to share their experience – partly by including the tag “right” at the end, which at least requires a confirmation.

It can also involve categorisation, the way we talk about or treat others as certain types or group members. For example, if you reduce the other person to a stereotype through labelling – by saying something like “girls always say stuff like that” or “OK, boomer” – you risk provoking a response to the insult, not to the action in which that insult was embedded.

Two people sitting on a bench, with sunset in the background, with their heads in their hands.
Family arguments can be tough. Shutterstock/Banana Oil

The second thing we expect from any conversation is alignment – cooperating with the direction of the conversation, such as accepting or denying a request. The opposite, disalignment, might occur when a request is ignored.

Alignment has more to do with the sequence of the conversation, how the dispute unfolds over time. Asking for clarification – a practice known as repair – or claiming a misunderstanding can treat problems as fixable errors rather than moral failings or attacks. Humour can diffuse conflict escalation.

Read more: How to lie (politely) when you receive a bad Christmas present

How to have a healthy dispute

In the course of a dispute, you need to think about when to bring these tactics out. They’re more likely to yield better outcomes earlier in the dispute. By the time it’s escalated, your responses may be viewed through the prism of the dispute and any offensiveness you’ve already displayed toward each other. In cases like this, teasing can come across as contempt, for example, and claims to misunderstand as bad-faith mockery.

It can feel like disputes take on a life of their own – as if the conversation uses us rather than we use it – and this is partly because conversation can seemingly take us along for the ride (consider the difficulty of turning down invitations). We invest our identities into conversations so disputes can seem to threaten us and what we stand for morally.

This may be starker with family, whose opinions of us often matter more than friends or colleagues, for example. It’s always worth stopping to reflect on what a dispute is really for, whether what you’re saying lines up with your goals and whether taking a stand is worth it.

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