We have all been caught up in flaming rows with our nearest and dearest - or else our colleagues or bosses, tradesmen or the neighbours with whom we share our physical space. We find ourselves in a discussion which suddenly - like a nightmare - escalates into an argument. The more the other sticks to their guns the more resolute we become as well.
From lover's tiffs right through to entrenched and serious differences of opinion with another may be a world apart but the event will engage the stress hormone cortisol. Recent research from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, found that those in constant conflict with family, friends, partners and neighbours are more than twice as likely to die in middle age. The report concluded with the pithy view that learning how to handle relationship stress could be a lifesaver.
What is really going on here? In disputes we typically have a sense of being "misrepresented without a right of reply". A fear and outrage at a lack of justice runs deeply - and correctly - in our veins.
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What can be worse than being accused of being a certain person because of our correct views? Being labelled a liar, an hysteric, and a control freak? When deep down you know that this is just not true and that the other person is not owning their side of the problem. So the stakes get higher as we shout louder, stop talking, slam doors, say terrible things and either feel hot with anger or sick with internalised rage.
Sometimes the lack of resolution can have dreadful results - the end of a relationship which still had potential, walking out of a job, losing a close friendship, cutting off family members.
Whether the situation has terrible consequences or ends up with a kiss-and-make-up, the psychic energy expended is expensive and draining. And it reinforces a sense of being a "winner" or a "loser" - neither of which is particularly healthy for us going forward. Binary solutions to interpersonal conflicts are the least recommended ways to find an outcome.
In an escalating argument we tend to find ourselves overcome with reactive emotion. The expression I was "beside myself" says it all. We are suddenly no longer who we were. So the first and important step is finding time to "collect yourself", to regroup, to calm down and to think.
So what are some quick tips to the all important defusing of an argument?
1. Use restraint
You can recognise the signs of escalation - heart pounding, voices raised, accusations flying. Step back. Use a normal tone and suggest you both take an opportunity for a breather and that you would like to think about a way through the argument.
2. Remove yourself from the situation
Put yourself in time out. Gather your thoughts. Hopefully the other party will too. If this does not work and you cannot remove yourself, then just keep silent and listen and then let the other person know you have heard them and that you will come back to them.
3. Keep it private
Don't involve others to take your side - this will only escalate the issue. If you know someone neutral who can mediate the discussion then this different. But they must be neutral.
4. Listen to the other side
It takes two to argue. It is very strategic to try and understand where the other is coming from. Doing this can contain the seeds of agreement. When you meet again, ask if you can summarise where you think they are coming from. Ask if they would do the same thing uninterrupted. This allows you both to define the actual issues - which tend to get drowned out by the static of acrimony - to the point where sometimes it becomes difficult to understand what we are actually arguing about!
5. Evaluate how much will it matter tomorrow
Picking our battles in life is a principle worth considering as a protective mechanism for our health and wellbeing.
6. Find a resolution
Agree to disagree and move on, seek a compromise, and if the issues are very serious, then involve an outside professional to assist you. Mediation as an increasingly popular alternative to the winners/losers adversarial legal system in the Western world. Sometimes disputes, at the high end of the scale, need court intervention. But overall negotiation and mediation is the better route to take to sort out our differences - mostly we can do this ourselves but sometimes it will require a professional mediator. First off though, we need to defuse the situation. Nothing will ever be resolved by rage.
In the end, being heard and understood - and hearing and understanding the other in return - is a hallmark of democracy in our close relationships. Winning and losing just does not rate compared to finding a fair compromise.
Only you can know whether a compromise is possible. It often is.
No one ever said finding a way through conflict was easy. And defusing arguments does not mean giving up your right to your view. Keep in mind the image of the way in which water flows around a rock. Water is more powerful -and we need that potent fluidity in our lives. It creates a far different result from what happens when a rock hits a rock.