I didn’t mean to start an argument, it just sort of happened. We were eating breakfast and I mentioned to Kristen that I would look pretty sweet with a permanent beard of bees. She said that wouldn’t be possible. And bam, just like that, we were arguing.
Arguments are inevitable in most relationships, probably because human beings are emotional creatures. An argument is nothing more than a botched exchange of information, a two-way transmission corrupted by emotional interference and ultimately defeated by our own behaviors. It’s a data transfer gone horribly wrong.
When emotions interfere with the exchange of information, an otherwise healthy conversation can easily and swiftly erode into a heated, sometimes savage argument. That’s the downside. The upside is that most arguments, even the heated ones, can be productive for everyone involved. I’ve no data to back up this claim, but still I can say this with total authority, as no one has inadvertently started more arguments with his spouse than me. If Spousal Annoyance were an Olympic sport, I’d wear more gold than Michael Phelps.
Transforming an argument into a meaningful discussion in real-time is possible if you can establish a communication channel to enable the exchange of information—a channel robust enough to duly acknowledge everyone’s emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.
With that in mind, here are the steps you can take to downgrade your next heated argument from “dust-up” to “difference of opinion”:
1. Stop the exchange.
I don’t mean to stop the exchange by walking out, necessarily, although I will address this particular tactic below. No, what I mean is to very respectfully pause the argument by saying nothing. Let the silence speak for a moment.
2. Take a deep breath and exhale.
A calm, steady breath is different from a sigh. A sigh betrays emotion, announcing to your partner that you’ve hit your limits with them—that you’re thoroughly annoyed—and that would be counterproductive. A deep breath, on the other hand, is free therapy.
Slow, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts in deliciously calming opposition to the sympathetic nervous system, which mobilizes your body under stressful situations, such as arguments over the feasibility—nay, practicality—of a permanent beard of bees. To reap the greatest benefit of this response, you should practice mindful breathing exercises five to ten minutes a day. It’s easy: sit in your favorite chair for ten minutes with your eyes shut, and breathe. Focus on the sensation of breathing, and when your mind inevitably wanders to other thoughts, mindfully acknowledge them as such (“That’s a thought about work,” for instance), and return your focus to the sensation of breathing. Ten minutes a day will have an enormously positive impact on your brain’s and body’s response to stress.
In the heat of the moment, especially if you practice mindful breathing every day, a deep breath will serve as a cue to calm down and proceed with an attitude of healthy acceptance. And that’s a great way to engage with someone.
3. Assess the emotions.
Now it’s time to refocus. Emotions likely led to the argument, and we need to focus on the issue at hand if we want to have a meaningful discussion. So, with an attitude of acceptance, take an earnest assessment of your emotions and the emotional state of your partner. Acknowledge your feelings, and seek clarification of your partner’s if necessary. (This simple gesture of respect can go a long way in opening up the channel of communication and also helps you to internalize the other person’s perspective—it can help calm things down.) Make it known that your intention is to understand how he or she feels. Even if it seems impossible, do this without issuing judgment against either party’s emotions. After all, emotions are inevitable, they’re important, and they should serve to guide the discussion. They just can’t be what drives the exchange.
Once you understand and have acknowledged the emotions associated with this argument, frame them as such. Note, silently, “These are the emotions associated with this discussion,” and then return your focus to the issue at hand: “But this is the issue we need to discuss.”
This whole process, beginning with the breath, could take a minute or two. But imagine—or recall—the damage that can occur in those two minutes in a heated argument.
4. Continue mindfully.
The same way you’d practice mindful breathing—acknowledging stray thoughts, labeling them, and returning your focus to the breath—you can practice mindful conversations. Your focal point is the topic at hand. When you start feeling emotions—anger, sadness, resentment—don’t let them interfere with the exchange of information. Acknowledge your feelings, internally label them for what they are without judging anything, and turn your attention back to the focal point.
A good way to proceed is to offer a sincere admission and even relate your vision for the conversation. It can be something as simple as saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve allowed my emotions to disrupt our conversation. I think it’s important that we stay on topic.”
5. Do NOT, under any circumstances, own a scooter. *Note: This rule mostly applies to men, but everyone should feel free to keep reading.
Guys: there may come a time when you’re arguing with your partner and you regrettably storm out. We’ve all done it. The argument spikes like a fever, emotions are too varied and entropic to process in real time, and it’s clear that there is no winner to be declared in the skirmish. And so we bail: “Forget this, I’m outta here.”
So manly, right? Now imagine yourself slamming the front door, thundering across the yard, and mounting your Vespa. After securing your helmet, you angrily walk it backwards down the driveway, kick it into first gear, and motor away down the street: verrrrmmmmm gugga-gugga-gugga verm-verrrrmmmmmm. Regardless of who was right or wrong, in that moment, as you’re speeding away on your scooter, you’ve lost.
Far more dignified and less comical it is to take a deep breath, ground yourself in presence of mind, and proceed with a meaningful discussion. About your permanent beard of bees.