4 strategies for learning how to argue mindfully


In this article:

  • Mindfulness is the practice of training our brains to be present in the moment. It’s learning how to strengthen our minds so they’re focused and less susceptible to wandering thoughts.

  • Research has found mindfulness provides numerous health benefits, including improved attention and concentration, as well as improved immune system and heart function.

  • To argue mindfully, you have to listen to what the other person is saying. You also have to listen to signals from your body.

“Mindfulness” is a pretty big buzzword these days. Search for it online and you’ll see no shortage of ways you can use mindfulness to become a better person. It can help you be a better parent, a better partner, a better athlete or a better employee. Basically, whatever you need to improve, mindfulness (at least according to the internet) can help.

Yet despite its reputation as a veritable panacea for our internal turbulence, we  may not understand exactly what it is or actually entails in practice. What does it really mean to be mindful? And how can you practice mindfulness? Especially during times (like the middle of an argument) when emotions are running high.

Here, we break mindfulness down for you, and offer tips on how to put it into practice.

What is mindfulness?

At its core, mindfulness is keeping your thoughts and focus on whatever it is you’re doing. Whether that’s working on a project, having a conversation with someone or just taking a walk.

Our minds like to wander. It’s easy to drift to thoughts of whatever is causing us stress or anxiety. Maybe your kid is acting up in school. Or maybe your mom is sick and in the hospital. Whatever’s going on in our lives that’s taking up energy — whether physical, emotional or mental — is where our attention tends to follow.

Inspired by Buddhism, mindfulness is a tool we can use (and develop) to bring our minds back to the present — over and over. It’s the practice of strengthening our brains so they’re not yanked around by our wandering thoughts. It helps center us and harness our focus.

Does it really work?

Mindfulness emerged in Western culture in the late 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn,  a University of Massachusetts medical school professor, developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to treat chronic pain. During the course of the program, Kabat-Zinn discovered that mindfulness works better to relieve pain than avoidance, which, he learned, can cause deeper distress.

Today, mindfulness has impacted every sector of society — from the corporate world and professional sports to the military and education. As the influence of mindfulness soars, the research highlighting its myriad benefits continues to accumulate.

To date, studies have found that mindfulness can help:

  • Improve attention and concentration.
  • Improve executive function.
  • Improve outcomes for people with certain diseases, including those with mental illness.
  • Improve social cooperation.
  • Reduce depression, anxiety and stress.

Research has also found that mindfulness can:

  • Benefit our hearts, by lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and preventing heart disease.
  • Improve immune response.
  • Improve psychological well-being.
  • Reduce cell aging.
  • Slow cognitive decline due to aging or Alzheimer’s.

By positively impacting our bodies as well as our minds, scientists have found that learning to pay attention to our experiences and accepting them without judgment can help ultimately make us happier people.

How does mindfulness relate to arguing?

So, how does all this relate to arguing? In a nutshell, it’s this: Arguing is uncomfortable, but if we can learn how to get comfortable with that discomfort, we can grow from it.

Conflict is natural, not to mention inevitable. Any relationship that lasts any length of time is going to face conflict.

Yet when we argue, we tend to have a want-to-win mindset — a goal of establishing that we’re right and the other person is wrong. But that black-and-white attitude doesn’t usually lead to resolution. Instead, it breeds defensiveness and makes it hard to find common ground.

“Most of the time, no one is really right or wrong,” says Swedish behavioral health provider Julia Terman, Psy.D. “It’s somewhere in the middle. But we’re not really listening to what the other person is saying because we’re only thinking of how we’re going to counter it.”

Be present and assume positive intent

Proving you’re right isn’t typically what’s important in a conflict. Most of the time, in fact, it’s about meeting at a compromise — learning to agree to disagree while still respecting the other person’s opinion.

That’s why one of the most important ways we can practice mindfulness while arguing is by simply being present and actively listening to what the other person is saying.

For this reason, assuming positive intent, especially when arguing with a loved one, is vital.  

“A lot of times, it’s about setting an intention,” Julia says. “What are we hoping to get out of this conversation? If we can assume positive intent, we can better understand their view and, ultimately, learn from them.”

This can take the form of simply acknowledging that you agree with something the person says. “That can be really powerful,” Julia says. “Just saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I do need to work on that,’ can help you form a connection with the other person.”

Respect the other person’s experiences

It’s also important to remember that a person’s perspective is shaped by their unique experiences. “We can’t change that,” Julia says. “So showing respect and compassion for the other person is key.”

Similarly, we should recognize that our own perspective is biased. That can help us remove our emotions from what we’re saying. It also can create room for us to see and respect the other’s point of view.

Notice your body signals

Another tip for practicing mindfulness during an argument is to listen to your body. “Are you tired or hungry, or is what the person saying triggering to you?” Julia says. “Being able to tune into our bodies and realize that we may not be in a space where we can truly be present and listen is critical to this process.”

Maybe you need to excuse yourself from the conversation for a few minutes and calm down. When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, we don’t problem solve well. Taking time to cool off — or even asking the other person if you can resume the conversation later so you’re better able to have a rational discussion — can help.

“That can be counterintuitive when we’re in the moment and our emotions are rising and we’re heading into an escalation,” Julia says. “But noticing that we’re heading that way and telling the person that you want to hear what they’re saying but you need a break to calm down and process first can help you get back to a place of understanding.”

Practice active listening

One thing’s for sure:  arguing mindfully takes practice. A lot of it. One way to develop it when you’re not in the middle of an argument is to practice active listening. To do this, listen to what someone says and then repeat it back to them. Then switch roles. It sounds simple, but it’s a great way to hone our listening skills so we’re better at it during stressful times.

Practicing these skills can help you argue in neutral — taking emotions out of it and leaving you calm, rational and understanding — and ultimately help propel you and the other person toward a healthy resolution.

“Practicing mindfulness during an argument can help you get to know the other person much better,” Julia says. “And it helps you see the topic in a different light, which can help you grow.”


Learn more and find a provider

For more information about comprehensive behavioral health care at Swedish, contact Swedish Behavioral Health and Wellbeing.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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