Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

Communication: Stay on the Road

The art of arguing

Tim Morgan

Sam and Allie disagree about how to rearrange the living room. They both start off calm and rational, but the conversation somehow quickly turns into an hot argument about who always gets their way, who has no sense of taste, etc. And after a few more minutes, it gets even more ugly and out of control than that - they are into mothers and Christmas ‘04.

There are actually two things going on simultaneously in this argument - content and process. Content is about what you talk about - ideas about the living room. Process is about how you talk about it - the way the conversation gets hot and off course. Process always trumps content. Having a conversation like driving a car down the road. You want to pay attention to where you are ultimately trying to get to, but you also need to pay attention to your driving. Once you start to veer off the road - the conversation is getting off course - you need to steer back to the center line, or if necessary, stop before it is too late. If you don't, you'll wind up in a emotional ditch, and never get to your destination.

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Makes sense, but it's not what we instinctively do. When we get angry - with our partners, with our teenage kids - we try to fix our emotions by heaping on more content - bringing up examples from the past, making more points in our argument. If we can get the other person to finally understand, we'll feel better. But he can't because he's in the same boat - is emotionally flooded and can't process what you are saying. At some point anything you say will only heat the other person even more - your words are like throwing gasoline on fire. The problem in the room is no longer about furniture, but the emotions, and you need to put the emotional fire out. There are two ways to do this:

1. Be quiet and listen. This is your first line of response as soon you realize the conversation is getting heated and going off course. Listening does not mean (though at first it may feel like it) that you are giving in. By listening, and reflecting back the emotion - "I know you are feeling frustrated, angry, etc." in the most calm voice that you can muster - you are no longer feeding the fire with content, and the emotional fire can burn itself out.

Now what the other person may do at first is ramp up to get you to re-engage and get back in the fight - "At least I never...!" "Well, your mother _____!" Don't go for the bait. Hold steady, stay calm yourself, and eventually the other person will begin to settle.

2. Call a halt. If listening and reflecting doesn't seem to work, or if you are having a difficult time containing your own emotion, it's time to call a halt, equivalent to pulling the car off to the side of the road and stopping. Stopping is important to prevent the emotional wounding that can happen in a heated argument. Stopping is about self control, self responsibility.

The best way to do this is to agree on a first-aide-time-out plan ahead of time. Here are the steps: 

  • Decide on a non-verbal time-out signal - throwing the dish towel up in the air, doing a referee time-out hand signal, whatever you agree on. Use this signal to call a halt as soon as either one you feels the conversation is getting out of control. 
  • After signaling your time-out, stop talking, and set a kitchen timer for a half hour or hour - this marks the designated cool-off period. 
  • Do whatever you need to do to calm down - sit in the car, lock yourself in the bathroom, stand in a corner and take 30 deep breaths. 
  • At the end of the allotted time you both come out of your corners and try the conversation again. If one or both of you are still too emotional, stop and reset the timer. You may need several breaks, or even wait until the next day to calm down. Only talk about the problem when you are both emotionally flat-lined. 

Because emotions and rational thinking don't mix, real problem-solving in the middle of a heated argument is impossible. What this plan does is separate the two - cools the emotions so you can then rationally solve the problem. Knowing the first-aide steps in advance helps ensure success.

But even though you understand the drill, getting it down will take practice. Expect the first couple of attempts to be a bit ragged. One of you will signal the stop and the other will want to get a last word in, or will say something to push your buttons and keep you engaged. The key is self-responsibility - paying attention to you, rather than what your partner is doing. Stop. Set timer. Leave and cool off. Then come back and try again.

Stay on the road.

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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