The Most Effective Tool For Ending A Family Argument, According To A Therapist

Written by Kati Morton, LMFT
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As much as we might love our families, spending extended amounts of time with them can definitely be a recipe for stress and discord. Whether visiting the family for the holidays and special occasions or simply dealing with your teenager on a regular weekday evening, we love this tool from mental health YouTube star Kati Morton’s new book Are U OK? A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health. Morton is a licensed therapist, and this strategy for heathfully facilitating—and ending—an argument is definitely one to bring home to the family. 

I have this fantastic tool that I use in my practice whenever I am seeing families or couples. It can stop any fight right in its tracks and even help spotlight unhealthy communication styles we may struggle with. It's by far my most useful tool, and all it is is a yellow laminated piece of paper called "the floor." I found this tool while reading the book Fighting for Your Marriage; it has been used by many therapists as a way to get people to take turns talking so each person can be heard. 

The floor comes with a pretty simple set of rules we all should know and abide by but often don't. If you have the floor, then you get to speak for yourself (no mindreading); you keep your statements brief and then give the listener time to paraphrase what you just said. If you don't have the floor, then you must listen to what the speaker is saying and then summarize what you hear (no arguing your side). In theory, it sounds pretty simple and easy to follow, but you would be surprised how many people struggle to follow the rules.

The hardest part for families and couples is to listen and only summarize what the speaker said. Everyone seems to want to fight back or tell their side of the story immediately. To have to wait until the floor is yours to share how you felt can feel like torture and serves to show us how little we listen to one another. When we don't have to worry about fighting back right away, and we have to repeat back what we've heard, it can slow down, if not stop, an argument.

That's why this is such a useful tool to practice on your own during any disagreement. Be quiet and let the other person speak, then tell your partner what you heard; after that you can feel free to share your personal thoughts on it. Just like this:

Speaker: "I was upset because I was trying to tell you how much easier it would have been to know you wanted to stay longer before I bought the flights to Florida. Then you said that I was having a meltdown, and that just made me feel worse."

Listener: "I hear you saying that I was late telling you how long I wanted to stay, and labeling your frustration as a meltdown was even more upsetting."

Speaker: "Yes. Exactly."

Now the floor is swapped between the partners.

Speaker: "Well, I didn't think what I was asking was that big of a deal, and hearing you be frustrated right away felt like an overreaction on your part."

Listener: "I hear you saying that my getting upset so quickly was surprising and more than expected."

Speaker: "Yes!"

While this practice can seem slow at first, it's not something we will have to do in such detail forever. It's just good practice to listen when someone else is speaking, ensure that you heard them, and then share your own side. When you interrupt or fight back right away, neither person gets to be heard, and both become even more upset. That's how some issues that seem like molehills can quickly turn into mountains and can inevitably ruin our relationships. Using this technique can help us hear each other and feel listened to in return. You can use it with anyone in your life who is willing to try it along with you. And don't think this applies only to marriages; I use this with my mom and friends all the time.

Not being taught how to communicate about difficult things can lead us to struggle to develop healthy relationships and withstand disagreements. We may find ourselves repeatedly in toxic situations or expecting those in our lives to be able to read our minds. Whatever the symptoms we experience, the good news is that we can learn new tools and methods to use when we want to fight or run away. Yes, even simple strategies like "the floor" method are going to be hard to integrate, so be patient with yourself as you try it out. Remember, we have been communicating (healthfully or not) a certain way our whole lives; it is going to take more than a few days to change that.

Adapted from Are U OK? A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health by Kati Morton LMFT, available December 12, 2018. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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