Hearing two people argue in a restaurant, on the street or at a social gathering rarely bothers me. I readily recognize their right to disagree and try not to judge them – even when their voices rise or are laced with obvious disrespect. I really don’t care what they’re feuding about or who they’re discussing.
My only reaction is to scan the immediate area to determine if there are any children present. If so, I work very hard to establish friendly eye contact. I want them to see me, know that I‘ve been there and I understand the confusion they’re experiencing.
Arguing is a natural part of the human condition. We all do it and half the time it’s a form of entertainment. We argue about politics, global warming, the right to choose, the state of the nation and the latest heath scare. We eagerly share our opinions about the film we saw last night, the article we read in People magazine and the diet we just heard about from Oprah. It’s what I call “safe arguing” and once the debate diminishes, a silent agreement is usually made to step away and let each participant consider themselves (at least partially) right.
But when a discussion becomes heated and verbal sparring descends to below-the-belt slugging, I would encourage you to take a deep breath, take a look around and consider young children who could be caught in the crossfire.
Kids are amazing. They’re quick adaptors and filled with positive energy. They’re also naturally intuitive with little brains like magnificent sponges that take in everything they experience and absorb the tiniest details. So, children know when the discussion stops being discussion and becomes a battle. And those who live with constant bickering can tell you exactly what words trigger the first shot. Watch closely and you can see the cloud fall over a child’s face when they hear the code words that open the door to another fight.
I speak from experience. My parents were both very smart and often held major discussions at the dinner table (another very bad idea). These discussions would always begin innocently enough; often over news of the day or the most recent change at whatever school I was attending.
And then I would hear the warning shot being fired. In my family it sounded something like “What would you know about an opinion piece in the New York Times? You don’t even read the paper!” Or “How would you know about anything going on outside of this house?”
Bang! Those sentences and trigger words would send a shiver from the top of my head down my spine and to my toes. I knew what was coming next and it wasn’t dessert. I would jump from the table with dinner plate and silverware in hand and run to the sink. Then I’d whisper that “I have a lot of homework” and fly upstairs to my room as fast as my tiny legs would carry me.
Once my door was closed, I’d surround myself with my precious books and stuff pillows on all sides – trying to protect myself from the waves of screaming that assault me for the next few hours. I was out of site and out of mind, but not really out of harm’s way. A kind of invisible collateral damage.
What I still find fascinating is that my parents fought as if no one else was in the house. They either forgot I was there or really believed their incessant arguing wouldn’t have any effect on me. My memories of their disrespectful exchanges begin at age 3 and I can still recall many specific arguments.
Did I gain anything from all those years of listening? Definitely. And I’m happy to share what I learned so you can add it to your interpersonal arsenal. Earlier this week I wrote about creating peace “one person at a time” and these tips continue that theme.
- Work extremely hard to tune out other people who want to fight in your presence, especially when you’re too young to leave on your own.
- As you get older, choose friends who respect you even if they don’t agree with you.
- When you choose to be in a lively discussion about politics, religion or other potentially polarizing topics, know when to walk away (mentally and physically).
- Learn to recognize the internal signals that are desperately trying to tell you to stop talking. If you ignore them, you risk becoming one of those people who say hurtful things you’ll never be able to take back. Once fired, you can’t pull the bullet back into the gun.
Finally, if you are a parent, please take the time to check your surroundings when you and your partner are in the midst of an argument. Where are your children? Believe me, if they’re anywhere close, they’re listening to every word.