published Friday, November 18th, 2011

Leber: The good fight: Winning isn't always the point

Want to fight?

I've had a bit of good practice lately, and I think I've learned a few things.

During a weekend reunion, several close college friends and I found ourselves engaged in a spirited debate, which eventually devolved into an argument, both about the topic at hand and about the manner in which we were debating.

There were two big problems. First, we ended up taking things too personally (it was a sensitive topic). Second, we stopped listening to one another.

That was the worst part. In particular, one friend was having a lot of trouble letting others finish thoughts. It wasn't until someone else pointed it out, however, that I was able to articulate, in my own head, what I was feeling: Despite the fact that my friend was making excellent points, her seeming unwillingness or inability to listen to others made me less inclined to want to listen to her.

Days later, Ronald K. Brown, executive director of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Evidence, A Dance Company, articulated what I had been thinking about during a phone interview I was having with him:

"In an argument," he said, "the best position to take is to listen."

So that was one valuable lesson. I've learned it before. I'll forget it eventually and learn it again.

More recently, the night before I wrote this column, I found myself in a heated discussion with my significant other. The conversation took a turn for the worse and devolved into berating (me) and coldness (him), taking a decidedly counterproductive tone.

Of course, very few productive conversations ever take place at four o'clock in the morning. So that might have contributed to the problem.

Anyway, there we were, stupidly exhausted, fighting nowhere close to fair, him becoming more dispassionate, me going for the jugular, when he said something that actually penetrated my stubborn skull: "You just don't know when to back off."

Cue the light bulb.

He's right. Well, he's sort of right. It's not always that I don't know when to back off, it's that I don't always take the moment to ask myself: "Should I back off?" And then I don't always do so, even when I know I should.

Sometimes, I get so caught up in proving my point or winning the argument that I don't really think about what is actually productive to the conversation. Sometimes, he gets so caught up in wanting to prove to me that I can't dictate his behavior (we're not exactly a "yes, dear" couple) that he is loathe to admit to having been wrong.

Is it quite clear that we're both rather stubborn?

But he made a great point, despite the fact that in that moment all I wanted to do was drive my point into his stubborn skull. Sometimes, you have to back off. And sometimes, you need to give in. Which, actually, is really the same thing when you think about it.

The situation with my boyfriend and the one with my college friends have similarities. In both circumstances, a debate about a particular topic turned into an argument about how we were communicating with one another. In both circumstances, there was at least one person who was not satisfied to hear any conclusion other than "you're right." And in both circumstances, I came away from unpleasant conversations having learned some lessons about good fighting.

I can honestly say, however, that a part of me understands the stereotypical alpha male response to settling a disagreement. Go outside, throw a few punches at each other, shake hands and have a beer.

It's just so much more efficient.

Contact Holly Leber at hleber@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/hollyleber. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/leber.holly.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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