There are times in everybody’s life when it seems that somebody – or, indeed, everybody else is determined to start the mother and father of all rows.
Of course, it can sometimes feel totally liberating to just ‘let rip’ with something along the lines of: ‘OK, you want an argument? Well, now you’ve got one!’ The trouble is, though, there is often an aftermath of awkwardness and suppressed retaliation that makes any sense of relief at having brought things into the open somewhat short-lived. Nobody really ever truly wins an argument.
Yet ‘biting your tongue’ and somehow swallowing irritation, frustration or the urge to spit out a few ‘home truths’ can play havoc with your body chemistry and your mood for ages afterwards. You can all too easily end up fretting about the fact that you didn’t stand up for your beliefs and that you’ve now been put well and truly in your place. On the other hand, if you can learn the trick of simply not winding up under provocation in the first place, then you’re firmly in the driving seat, and you can leave the others to their anger. So, here’s how to keep your cool.
Pause and breathe
When you feel the little surge that precedes a retaliatory response and the words are already forming in your mind, just pause and breathe. Breathe easily in and out just once and if you still want to say what is in your mind, then say it firmly, but don’t shout it. This creates the appearance of a measured response and indicates that you are in full control of your faculties. The small pause suggests you’re considering your reply, giving what you say far more gravitas. Gravitas is always good in an argument situation.
It doesn’t matter how many times somebody hurls insults and criticisms at you, they’re not actually talking about you, but about themselves. They’re telling you – usually very loudly – what they hope will score a point or two. Recognising that can go a long way to not winding up, especially if you have a mild reply ready along the lines of: ‘I’m not sure if I agree, but thanks for telling me your thoughts.’ It should be delivered calmly, of course.
Just about the worst thing to do if you want to avoid being wound up is to begin your reply, even after taking that breath, with ‘You’, because whatever follows will increase the other party’s determination to ‘win’. So, your reply should always begin with ‘I’. ‘I’m interested in exactly why you feel like that…’ or ‘I need to think about that for a while, actually…’ are both good anti-escalation replies.
Keep your volume down
This one is probably one of the most effective methods ever of avoiding the wind-up process from getting started… keep the volume down. Replying in normal conversational tones, as if making an observation, means the other party has to stop yelling in order to hear what you’re saying. And they will want to hear it even if they talk over you at first. It doesn’t mean you have to sound timid – just speak as if you were answering a question about something you know really well. They might still wind up, of course, but you won’t.
Wait and be patient
The emergency stop. This one is for those occasions when you’ve really taken the bait and are already in a fully reactive mode almost before you realise it. You might have already delivered a broadside or two, and now you need a rapid de-escalation without the feeling of loss of face. You can do it in the time it takes to take that breath mentioned above.
See a vivid image of you and your ‘argument partner’ as if from the outside for a split second before you imagine it becoming frozen in time. See yourself take a tiny step back as your expression changes from anger to calmness, zoom in to become that calm self and then say something like ‘I realise this isn’t going to solve anything so let’s look at it some other way.’ In the case of the other party refusing point-blank and very loudly, the best reply is along the lines of ‘OK, another time then, because I’m all out of the argument for today.’
Of course, these little ‘tricks’ won’t always work, especially if your ‘argument partner’ is somebody you live with or who is otherwise close enough to recognise you’ve adopted a new tactic. Then, the result would be likely to be more goading with a few personal jibes thrown in for good measure. There is still one thing you can do, though, even then: ‘Look I don’t know if you’re trying to sort out the problem or win the argument but if it’s that last one, OK, you win.’ It might sound like giving in, but it actually puts you back in control.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that these tips can sometimes result in a move from an angry argument to a constructive one – and that’s always a good thing.
Terence Watts is an author, psychotherapist, fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, founder of the British Brain Working Research Society and the Terence Watts BWRT Institute.
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