It’s inevitable. You find yourself in the midst of an argument with a loved one or other important relationship. A typical argument with your spouse might go something like this.
You get home after a trying day of work. You look forward to plopping yourself on the couch to unwind. But instead, your spouse comes at you with “you forgot to take out the garbage again last night. With all I have to do around here, the last thing I need is to take over anything else. You had ONE JOB. Good thing I thought to check this morning. I had to waste my time rushing around and do it before the garbage man came. YOU’RE WELCOME!”
Or perhaps your mother left you a voicemail a few days ago. She wanted to know how your son’s school play went. You finally sit down to call her back. Only to hear “you’re impossible to get a hold of! You NEVER call back – how am I supposed to find out how my grandchildren are doing?? You could try calling me once in a while.”
Yikes! What to do next? (Besides head for the hills…)
First and foremost, be aware that lashing back defensively in any argument would be like pouring gasoline on a fire. The ability to stay calm in the face of a verbal attack does not come naturally to us. But fortunately, it’s a skill that can be learned. And it can save your relationship – with your spouse, child, parent, or close friend.
When we are attacked verbally, our brain reacts the same as if there is a gun pointed at us. According to this article published in The Science Explorer, we immediately dive into a “fight-or-flight” state. Our brain secretes hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, that instruct your nervous system to prepare your body for drastic measures — breath shortens, blood flows the muscles, and peripheral vision disappears. This fight-or-flight reaction can literally “hijack” your voice of reason. It’s in this state (otherwise known as losing your sh*t), you’re likely to blurt out things you might later regret.
As a divorce and family lawyer for over 20 years, I’ve seen many divorces result from spouses interacting with one another like this for an extended period of time. Over time, resentment builds up until one or both spouses can’t stand being together any longer. Here’s how to win an argument without raising your voice by keeping your cool.
Look at what’s really going on.
It usually helps to remember that people spouting off generally don’t mean what they’re actually saying. They’re just upset. According to attorney and mediator in Clovis, California, Doug Noll, “the number 1 best way to not become triggered is to ignore the words. No matter how insulting, disrespectful, or threatening the other person is, ignore what they are saying.”
Ironically, when your spouse or someone in an important relationship with you launches into a verbal attack, what they really want is more of your attention. According to Suzette Haden Elgin, author of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, verbal attackers are “like little kids desperate for attention and know that throwing hostile language at you will get your attention.”
This actually makes sense. For instance, notice the times when our spouse typically picks a fight with you. Is it often at times you haven’t been home lately or have been preoccupied? Once you see what’s really going on, next time you find yourself a target, you can consciously summon up compassion by noting the desperation for attention and that this is the best the person can do right now.
Figure out what sets you off.
We all have what psychologists call emotional “triggers.” Triggers are strong negative emotions that activate our flight or fight response. They are unique to each person. For example, when feeling left out or being ignored. Knowing what sets you off will give you a leg up in an argument and help you keep your cool.
Another tip I’ve personally found extremely effective in short-circuiting the fight-or-flight response. Practice simply observing your thoughts and feelings as if you were an outside observer. Chances are your emotional reaction will quickly dissipate.
Pause and breathe.
Stop and say nothing and take two or three deep, slow breaths. This sends a signal to your body that a fight-or-flight reaction is not necessary. Change your body language position to neutral or friendly. The physical change also helps calm the emotional reaction.
Over time, you can actually change the way your brain responds to such emotional triggers in the future. I’ve personally experienced this myself.
Choose your words.
It’s important to never tell the other person to calm down. Instead, focus on speaking calmly. Staying calm makes it more likely the other person will calm down as well.
If you jump in to correct the person or argue your case, they’ll only dig in more that they’re right. Instead, you can neutralize an angry tirade with something like “I hear you” or “I can certainly understand that.” Follow up with “and” not “but” – anything that comes after the “but” will be all they hear. For example, you might say “I hear you and I want to make sure I hear you correctly.”
If you need to interrupt a particularly long-winded verbal attack, do so with tact. To effectively interrupt, you might try simply raising your hands slightly while saying “hang on” or “just a second.” Follow it up with “I want to make sure I heard you right” or “I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.” Then paraphrase what you heard and ask if you got it right. This can be an extremely effective way to gain the other person’s trust.
When you cultivate this skill with practice until it becomes a habit, you’ll be able to stay cool and win an argument every time. And whether at home, in business, or at work, relationships will flourish.
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