When we’re in the middle of a heated argument, it’s very easy to quickly lose control of ourselves. We will often say things that we don’t mean, or we may do something that we immediately regret, and when this happens we have damaged the trust and respect in such a way that it’s difficult to get back. This is the potential cost of any argument that we get ourselves into. The more heated they are, the more difficult it is to rebuild a positive connection with the other person in the future.
So how can we prevent our arguments from spiraling out of control? What are some ways we can defuse a heated situation before they go too far? The great book “Crucial Conversations” is a fantastic guide on how we can face these arguments better – wherever they happen to be.
When we are in the middle of a heated argument, we feel as if we are being personally attacked. This gets our blood pumping and engages our “fight or flight” response. This adrenaline rush makes us act impulsively and recklessly, and at this point we stop thinking of ways to have a healthy conversation – we just want to attack or run away.
The book describes the social version of our “fight or flight” response as “silence or violence.” These are the two main ways that we respond to a heated argument. When we choose the “silence” option, it means we start becoming quiet, watering down our opinions, or apologizing for our beliefs. When we choose the “violence” option, it means we will start throwing insults, yelling, and becoming aggressive. Both of these responses are a means to cut off any meaningful dialog.
To get back to meaningful dialog, the goal is to make both you and the other person feel “safe” again. The more comfortable you both are, the more productive the conversation will be. Establishing safety is a key aspect to defusing heated arguments before they head in a direction no one wants. Below we will go on to describe some ways that this can be done.
How to Defuse Heated Arguments
The goal of any conversation is to create a “shared pool of meaning.” This means making sure that everyone feels safe to speak their mind and contribute to the conversation. To create this “shared pool of meaning,” we need to make the conversation as safe and as open as we possibly can. The more information that is shared, the easier it is to connect our views with someone else’s views. However, once we start drifting away from these feelings of safety, we tend to resort to “silence” or “violence.” These are conversation killers that we need to get rid of before meaningful dialog can start up again.
Below are some key points to remember:
Silence is one way that we cut ourselves off from meaningful dialog. Signs of silence include taking back what we say (“withdrawing”), not speaking our minds (“avoiding”), and watering down our message (“masking”).
Pay Attention to the Signs of Violence
Violence is the other way that we cut ourselves off from meaningful dialog. Signs of violence include cutting people off (“controlling”), judging things as good or bad (“labeling”), and using insults (“attacking”).
Seek to Bring Things Back to Safety
The earlier we can identify the signs of “silence” and “violence”, the easier it will be to handle them before they spin out of control. If we can notice these signs, we can bring the conversation back to a safer place.
Start with What You Agree with
One of the best ways to bring a conversation back to safety is to start with what you agree with. Good conversations begin with “yes” or “I agree” – not “you’re wrong.”
Tell the Facts Behind Your Story
When we want to share a story with others, it’s very important that we stick to the facts without making accusations or conjectures. There’s a big difference between saying, “I noticed this weird charge on our credit card” versus “You’re cheating on me!” Explain your version of the story and why you believe and feel the way you do.
Give People Permission to Tell Their Story
Just as we need to tell our stories honestly, we need to encourage others to tell their story honestly as well. When we’re all honest, the “shared pool of meaning” grows. However, you need to make the other person feel safe enough to tell their story without feeling judged or ridiculed. Ask them, “Tell me what you really think, I won’t get mad.” Then listen to them and try not to get upset.
Discover a Mutual Purpose
When we get into heated arguments, we often lose track of what we’re really arguing about and what the “bigger picture” is. It’s very important to take a step back and try to find a mutual purpose. What do I really want from this? What does the other person want? Are we focusing on what really matters?
All of the above advice is designed to bring our conversations back to safety and open up a richer shared pool of meaning. The more freely information flows between us in a respectful and honest way, the easier it is to have a healthier conversation. So, if you just happen to be someone who struggles with having healthy conversations, especially in difficult circumstances, try your best to remind yourself of the principles, and put them into action.