Research shows that most arguments begin with low-grade niggles about things like leaving sock-fluff on the carpet, unwashed plates next to the sink, or flicking TV channels. These situations can quickly escalate into a full-scale row, in which underlying issues get brought into the conversation and both parties end up in The Bad Place. As the vaudeville comedian Jack Benny remarked, ‘My wife and I have been married for 47 years and not once have we had an argument serious enough to consider divorce. Murder, yes, but divorce, never.’
There’s nothing unhealthy per se about having an argument but, if we’re repeatedly clashing with someone, it leaves us in an exhausting and destructive cycle of flaring up, repairing the relationship, and getting things back on an even keel before the process happens again.
So what are the stages of an argument and how can you keep your conversations at ground level?
Stage 1: The Spark.
The spark for a disagreement can take many forms, such as something you’ve said that’s perceived as a criticism or something you haven’t said that was expected. Either way, there’s a trigger that sets us in opposition to each other, rather than being alongside each other.
What to do? The key in Stage 1 is not to react. Just as a fire can only ignite if there’s a combination of oxygen, heat and fuel, arguments fizzle out if you remove blame. Sometimes it’s enough to say nothing at all, or to simply acknowledge what the other person is saying.
Stage 2: The Lift-Off.
Conversations escalate quickly once accusations are made, leading to counter-accusations and justifications. The speed of the conversation accelerates; we stop listening and the more we interrupt each other, the more the conversation gets inflamed. As the intensity level increases, we experience a stress response known as emotional flooding. The interaction becomes mindless rather than mindful, in the sense that we react first and think second.
What to do? When a conversation escalates, our attention switches. We become more interested in being right about our point of view than in resolving the issue or giving the other person a chance to be heard, and we employ strategies in one-upmanship, in which we attempt to match or supersede the other person’s last comment. But we do still have choices. Try the following:
Stage 3: The Spiral.
There’s a scene in Mary Poppins where George Banks attempts to cut short a potential argument by declaring, ‘Kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts.’ We tend to follow this principle when we have disagreements, making unsubstantiated claims rather than having rational conversation. It becomes a spiral in which both sides look to reinforce their case. Tactics include:
These tactics are all designed to gain an advantage but, in doing so, we are pouring fuel on the fire.
What to do? In Stage 3, you are throwing caution to the wind. However, it’s not too late to take action. The best way to do this is by pressing the STOP! button. You can say, ‘I want to stop this conversation and come back to it later.’ There’s a good chance the other person will try to pull you back into the disagreement, but you have the right to remove yourself.
Stage 4: The Crescendo.
When an argument is reaching its climax, we want the final word. This could be a last volley of accusations, or a slammed door and dramatic exit. Alternatively we might take the moral high ground by saying, ‘That’s a low blow. I’m not going to stoop to that!’
Such behaviors can seem absurd in retrospect, once the heat of the moment has dissipated, but we get caught up in the moment. Originating in the mid-brain, our emotions prepare us for a fight or flight response and become increasingly intense during a confrontation.
What to do? While we don’t select our feelings, we do choose our response to them. The crucial job is to practice noticing your feelings – however strong and uncomfortable they are – while referencing your commitments and values. We’ve all demonstrated this principle when we’ve felt terrified and done something anyway. In the same way, we can feel intense anger and demonstrate respect towards someone.
Stage 5: The Bad Place.
At the end of an argument, we find ourselves in The Bad Place, meaning that our sense of connection is temporarily lost. More often than not we smoulder and feel wronged, before starting to reflect on what’s happened.
What to do? At times there’s no need to discuss an argument after it’s happened, as long as we can let go of our righteousness and move on. At other times, sitting down to discuss it in a more reflective light allows any residual issues to be resolved. When you do this, having an agreement to listen to each other is a pre-requisite, so you don’t tip back into another row.
The world’s oldest living couple are Karam and Kartari Chand who have been married for nearly 90 years. Naturally, the question everyone asks is how they’ve managed to keep their relationship intact for so many years. Karam gives his answer in simple terms: ‘Listen to your loved ones’ problems and concerns every day.’ When we remember to do this, we have fewer toxic arguments.
For more in depth information, my new book is ‘Blamestorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong and How to Fix Them,’ published by Watkins.
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Image by Simon Pearsall