Mishlei wisdom: how to manage your response in an argument

Chapter 25 in Proverbs has some interesting ideas about how to control yourself before you even enter into an argument. It’s some great practical advice that will go a long way.

The verse says (roughly): “Don’t go out to fight quickly; What will you do at the end of the fight if your friend humiliates you?”

This little sentence gives some really good advice about handling arguments. Most people get into a fight because they ‘know’ they are right. They’re convinced of it. The verse tells us to stop and consider (even if you’re right), what will you do IF the other person is right? Most people would say, “but he isn’t right”. Just think for a minute – but what if he is. Be introspective. Give yourself the space and the integrity of thought. You don’t have to back down from your own position, you just have to be able to answer the question “what if”. This space you give yourself to stop and think and not rush into the argument or answer straight away allows you to look at all the information before ‘fighting for your cause’. You can still be right after you’ve considered all perspectives, but give yourself that time to go and consider. All too often we feel we’re pushed into defending ourselves or the topic without stepping back and thinking.

If you’re the one starting the argument, before you complain to the other person (even if you’re very hurt) think about what your next step is. The best way to think it through is to imagine you tell the other person what bothers you – what will the other person say, what could they say, what scenarios have you not considered? There’s always many situations that we never think to consider. Be creative and use your imagination. This is where it is important to step into the other’s shoes and try to see what they may be seeing. This kind of intellectual honesty takes a lot of effort because it forces you (at least for a short time) to negate or ‘put aside’ your own views no matter how right you think you are. This can be even more difficult when there’s pain or other strong emotions involved. Do yourself and the other person a favour – pretend you’re in a court and presenting the other’s point of view. Stop and allow yourself to defend the other person. Play devil’s advocate. What this brings you back to is another mitzvah – to judge others favourably. It’s our obligation to go out of our way to find reasons why the other person may have acted the way they have. The example our Rabbi gave was a neighbour who keeps throwing rubbish over the fence. No matter how nicely you ask she keeps doing it over and over again. What would you think? How would you react? Such chutzpah! Some would throw it right back and cause even more trouble. Others would try to work out why she may be doing this. Find justification in the others actions. Could there possibly be a logical reason for such nasty behaviour? One reason that may not be very obvious at the time is that the flat upstairs is throwing out this rubbish, she thinks it’s you throwing it over the fence and she’s 95 years old so she throws it back to you. It ends up that she’s got the wrong person to begin with and this has nothing to do with you. Looking back at the outcome you might laugh at yourself and think ‘that’s so obvious, nothing to get upset about’. You might even volunteer to help sort out the real issue. Be real – at the time we often feel so beaten down, so degraded by the other’s actions that we don’t even stop to think about the options – we don’t stop to defend the other person from our own misjudgments.

The rule is, if you can’t see the other’s reasoning for why they may have done you this wrong then don’t pick the fight – you’re sure to lose because it’s at that exact time that the other person will bring something to the table that will turn the whole argument on its head. Like a lawyer who plays devil’s advocate or a good chess player – know what the other is thinking and try to understand what their motives might be. If you don’t know, don’t play.

It’s tough advice and I’m sure not easy to implement in the heat of the moment, but it’s up to us to have control of ourselves and respond intelligently, if at all.


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