The art of arguing, part IV: what strategies can help individuals de-escalate heated arguments and maintain composure?

De-escalation is context specific, but there are definitely some general skills that we can talk about. But it’s worth remembering that de-escalating a bar fight, a work conflict, and a kitchen argument with your partner are all going to be a different. Let’s talk about withdrawal, de-escalation, and letting go.

escalator down

If you want to disengage from a conflict, it’s worth having just some key phrases in your toolkit that you can remember to use even when you’re feeling difficult emotions that are preventing you from best articulating yourself. A good phrase will attend to the other as much as to yourself, recognizing that withdrawing from an argument, emotionally, verbally, or physically, can affect the other and often bring up resistance in them. When a person withdraws completely, it can produce frustration or hopelessness in the other, which can then turn to aggression. It can also bring up shame, if the person feels that it was their fault that you needed to pull away, and shame can cause other unwanted consequences. These are just examples of the ways that our attempts to withdraw can create their own sources of resistance that prevent us from getting out of there!

“I need to take a break from this to calm down, but we can come back to this in a few minutes. I’m just going to go for a quick walk / sit down in the other room for a few minutes.”

This simple phrase has a few technical components. It lets the person know, because of your use of “I statements,” that this isn’t really about them. This can help to deal with defensiveness that can arise when someone withdraws. It also suggests this isn’t a total withdrawal, and we’ll come back before long. Whether you mean this (perhaps you need more than a few minutes) you’re reassuring the person that you’re neither abandoning them and the relationship, nor are you abandoning the issue that may actually be important!

When we feel abandoned or hopeless about resolution, these can each lead to resisting the withdrawal, so you’re getting ahead of that with these techniques. I also want to share a little bit about what this withdrawal is going to look like. Presumably both parties are feeling very emotionally aroused, and I want to help ground the de-escalation in reality so that their mind doesn’t wander about what’s happening and how long it’s going to last. Many people will feel anxious under these conditions and this can propel them not to accept the de-escalation. We want to help the other a little so that they can help you. It may not sound like the pure autonomy and boundary-setting that some therapists talk about, but it’s far more useful, far more functional, which to me is the bottom line.path

In couples counselling, I routinely discuss with partners the effects of poorly expressed de-escalation and withdrawal strategies. While it’s essential that we have the autonomy to leave a conflict when we want to, we can be more successful in taking care of ourselves in this way if we also know how to take care of the other.

De-escalation rather than withdrawal is different of course. The skills of self awareness, emotional mastery, and courageous listening will help. I believe we need to lead de-escalation rather than asking it from the other. We need to be the first to take a step down the ladder of emotional intensity, and to show this to the others in our body language, our tone, our voice.

I use the mindfulness trick of “the catch” to notice when I need to de-escalate. I pay attention to that little voice that at some point says to me “this is getting too hot”. I take an interior pause and set a small intention to chill out. This doesn’t need to have some Yogic formality. I simply say to myself “let’s cool this off”. Conflict generates its own heat, and this can be rhythmic—we can get louder and hotter just because the argument is taking us in that direction, and it can pull us well past the intensity level of our authentic feelings. My goal is to get back to where we actually are, not where we’ve been carried to.

I like to sit down if I’ve been standing and try to focus my vision on the person with whom I’m in conflict. I take a deeper than normal inhale and exhale through my nose. I see if I can generate a small smile on my lips—very small, just for me. In these ways, I am somatically grounding myself. This changes my body language, of course, and also helps me with my voice, to be a little quieter and gentler. Most of the time, these simple (but not easy!) steps will be picked up by the other and the process has begun. The upward movement of conflict has been thwarted. This is the process of de-escalation.

I will also invite the other, if needed, to join me at a little lower intensity. Again, I do this with phrasing that doesn’t put them into a defensive or resistant position.  I don’t act like I’m superior to them or they’re being childish. I usually take the blame myself for the rousing tempo we achieved! I might say, “I’m sorry I got us quite heated there, can we slow this down a little at all?” I want to make it easy for them to join me in a de-escalated state.

There’s another element too, which becomes available to partners with a lot of trust. And this is the mutual recognition that not all arguments need to be argued, i.e. that sometimes we can let time do it’s thing. Or we can leave well enough alone. Or we can healthfully table this for another time. Not all moments are right to fight, and if we have trust between us, we can learn to let go of resolution sometimes. I think this requires maturity in the sense that we need to trust that each of us is willing to argue when it needs to be done, otherwise we can’t tell the difference between “letting go” and “avoidance”. But when we earn the relational right “just to let it go”, trusting the other will really do that and not just bottle it up, trusting that as a pair we can come back to this issue when and if we need to, we can really buy ourselves some freedom from many of our apparent conflicts without resorting to avoidance.