When embroiled in a fierce and passionate argument with someone, common courtesy tends to go right out the window. Our lizard brains get all fired up and it’s difficult to keep a level head when adrenaline is pumping hard. The thing is, not much is ever accomplished during shouting matches, so taking things down a few notches is necessary to both be heard and to hear what the other person is saying.
Yes, you heard that right. Arguments are only productive when both people have an opportunity to get their point across. Even if things are heating up, you can find paths to level ground where volumes are low and ideas are exchanged. Here are some tips for keeping things manageable during a passionate back-and-forth:
1. Take a deep breath
It may seem simple, and it is. Take a breath. Take a few! Tell the other person “wait a minute” while you collect your thoughts and trigger your nervous system to start cooling down. It’s okay to say “we’re getting nowhere with this” or “let’s cool our heads for a sec” while you regroup. If you let things escalate, you are letting the current drag you out into a tumultuous sea.
2. Identify the other person’s emotions
Empathy is something that is hard to picture as having a place in the middle of an argument, but it is essential to having a productive dialogue. Ask yourself how the other person is feeling. And, “angry” doesn’t cut it. What’s underneath it? Are they feeling dismissed or slighted? Hurt? Defensive?
Also ask yourself what YOU are feeling. And tell the other person this. I-statements are a problem solver’s best friend. Let the person know “I’m feeling annoyed and targeted when you give me criticism.” Get to the nitty gritty.
3. Summarize what the other person is saying
Dig deep for this one. To show you are interested in having a productive conversation, try and summarize what the other person is putting out there. “I can tell you’re upset about our plans changing again” or “I know you feel disrespected when someone kneels during the national anthem.”
Summarizing doesn’t mean the end of the argument or even that you are agreeing with their stance, but it can wrench communication wide open. It gives you and the other person a chance to clarify your points in a more calm fashion and can feel reassuring that the other person is truly hearing you.
4. Negotiate how each of you can be equally heard
If things get heated, take that deep breath and calmly point out that the discussion has ventured over into argument territory and each of you are only getting angrier. Take a seat as a way of physically showing that you aren’t being aggressive and invite the person to discuss terms of how you can continue.
This can look like saying, “We can keep talking, but we can’t shout over each other anymore” or even “Look, it’s clear we are both upset right now. Let’s continue this talk another time.” Create boundaries that you both agree upon or, if you can’t agree, part ways and brainstorm how to approach the topic at another time.
5. Listen without drafting a response
One of the hardest things to do during an argument is listen. Oftentimes, we are too busy drafting what we are going to say next to truly hear what the other person is saying—whether it’s their literal words or reading into their emotional state.
Arguments are typically about winning. Each person wants to walk away victorious, being able to say they have changed someone’s mind or that they have pointed out enough flaws in the other person’s way of thinking that they end up feeling embarrassed or stupid. This animalistic instinct doesn’t do us much good in the civilized societies we have built for ourselves. We can do better. And usually the first step is taking the cotton out of our ears and putting it in our mouths.