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To stay cooperative, take a break at the first whiff of anger or defensiveness.

The surest way to prevent needless arguments is to exit any situation that's likely to escalate. If the two of you are not in sight or talking distance with each other, fighting is impossible.

Exit and Re-entry argument-prevention strategies are based on a simple reality.  Most people who know collaborative communication skills can succeed in using their skills effectively when they are emotionally in a normal zone--and then throw them out when the begin to get heated.  The more they feel frustrated, irritated or angry, the more likely that they will spit out dumb and hurtful comments.  

In other words, getting angry is to talking cooperatively what high speeds are to safe driving.  The odds of dangerous mistakes zoom upward as your angerometer begins to spike.

The checklist below is from, my online relationship skills program, works best if you sit down together at a calm time and design your strategy together.  Neither of you then will be "turning your back" on the other to leave or "walking out on" the other.  Instead, you will be takings exits simultaneously and mutually, with a plan for how to cool down and then, asap, resume the conversation.

What about me tells me that it's time to exit?

Early exits are preferable.  Note if you feel yourself entering the fast lane, i.e., feeling increasingly frustrated or irritated, using a louder voice, talking faster, repeating yourself, or feeling an impulse to issue angry criticism or accusations.  Note also if you feel yourself tensing up or talking defensively.  Immediately on noticing any of these departures from cooperative calm dialogue, find an off-ramp.  

My Part of the Plan:

My Partner's Part of the Plan:

What signs in my spouse signal it's time for me to initiate a mutual exit?

Some folks notice elevated emotions in voice tone.  Some notice a look in the eyes or a set of their partner's mouth.  Certain words may be signposts, words like You..! and But...!  

My Part of the Plan:

My Partner's Part of the Plan: 

Where will I go?

Go to a safer topic or to separate rooms.  If you are in the car together, exit the conversation and turn on the radio.Divvy up the house or pick a his and a her space for cooling down.  Designate a comfortable "Quiet Chair" for each of you to go to.  Set it up with distracting materials nearby to read or other self-soothing activities.

My Part of the Plan:

My Partner's Part of the Plan:

Things I will not do because they would increase my annoyance/anger.

The most common mistake is to take your partner with you in your head.  If you are ruminating on "What he did" or "She had no right to....", you will not cool.  

My Part of the Plan:

My Partner's Part of the Plan:

What I will do to calm down. 

Find activities that are calming to replace the thoughts that keep you agitated.  Start perhaps with drinking a cool glass of water.  Then find pleasant distractions like reading a magazine, watering the plants, working out, or playing with children.

My Part of the Plan:

My Partner's Part of the Plan:

When and how will we re-engage?

As soon as you feel emotionally back to normal, return to the place of the original discussion.  As you become skillful at cool-downs, you are likely to be ready to return within five to ten minutes.  It's a good idea also to plan a new and emotionally safer way to approach the difficult topic before you re-enter.When you are both again in the original space, start reconnecting with easy chit-chat.

My Part of the Plan:

My Partner's Part of the Plan:

What are safe, upbeat topics to chat about to test the waters before returning to the hot topic?

There's always the weather.  Or sports.  Or plans, kids, or other topics on which you usually talk cooperatively.  

Once you feel emotionally back to baseline in these conversations, implement your plan for gently re-addressing the tougher, touchier, topic.  Emphasizing initially what you agree with about your partners concerns is often a good way to re-launch.  

My Part of the Plan: 

My Partner's Part of the Plan:  

Remember that feelings of anger warn you of danger ahead.  

Exit, then return and deal effectively and cooperatively with the problem.  Remember too that your partner is not the problem; the problem is the problem.  


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website,

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