A Plan for Zero Arguments

Take the pause that refreshes. Use exits to preserve your relationships.

Posted Jan 16, 2012

K7496152/Fotosearch
Source: K7496152/Fotosearch
To stay cooperative, take a break at the first whiff of anger or defensiveness.

The surest way to prevent needless arguments is to exit gracefully from 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. Talk more only after you have returned to the calm zone.

Exit and Re-entry argument-prevention strategies are based on a simple reality. Most people with collaborative communication skills can succeed in using their skills effectively when they are emotionally in a normal zone. They  lose access to their skills once the dialogue begins to get heated.  

Have you noticed that pattern?  The odds are high that for you as well, the more you feel frustrated, irritated or angry, the more you become at risk for spitting out hostile and hurtful comments. At the same time, the more intense your negative emotions, the more your ears will close off to being able to hear what in fact makes sense in what others are saying.

(c) 4774344sean fotosearch
Source: (c) 4774344sean fotosearch

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 anger-ometer begins to spike.

So take the pause that refreshes.

Take an early exit from any situation you or the person you are talking with are not handling calmly.

If you caught the rising emotional intensity early enough, just pausing the discussion for a bit may enable both of you to calm down and rethink how you want to approach the topic more effectively.  If not, probably you will each need to walk into different rooms.

The exit planning form below is from my Power of Two books and online relationship skills program.  There's an additional exit planning form in the anger section of the free website for my book Prescriptions Without Pills.

With a predesigned exit plan, 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.  In addition, you'll know how to cool down and then also how to re-enter and resume the conversation.

Designing your zero-arguments exit plan.

To design your plan, start by picking a calm time when you can sit down together to address the following questions.  

How can you know when it's time to exit?

Early exits are preferable.  

Note immediately when 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 signs within you that you are departing from cooperative calm dialogue, find an off-ramp.  What might you notice?

My Part of the Plan:

My Partner's Part of the Plan:

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

Some folks notice elevated emotions in their poartner's 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 choose 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, begin gently to re-address the tougher, touchier, topic.  

Emphasize initially what you agree with about your partners concerns.  Then add, using "and" rather than "but", your perspective.

My Part of the Plan: 

My Partner's Part of the Plan:  

Remember that feelings of anger warn you of danger ahead.  

Anger feelings are warnings.  They warn you first of all that it's time to find an exit ramp.  At the same time, they probably do indicate that there is an issue that would be helpful for the two of you discuss. 

So exits are the starting point for a zero arguments relationship.  You will need skills also for talking cooperatively when you return.  Be sure that you get those skills as well!

 -----------------------------------------------

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Susan Heitler, PhD, a Harvard and NYU graduate and a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple books.  The Power of Two series includes a book, a workbook, and a fun interactive website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, for learning the skills that sustain successful no-arguing relationships.  

Dr. Heitler's most recent book, Prescriptions Without Pills, adds further relationship skills, plus techniques for overcoming depression, anger, anxiety and addictive habits.