We have all been there. That moment when we feel a disagreement turning into a full-blown fight. Maybe this has been with a co-worker, a friend, or our spouse. These kinds of fights leave us feeling exhausted, drained, doubting our relationship, wounded, and often guilty. Here are 5 tips to help de-escalate fights.
1. Take a deep breath– When you take a deep breath, and let it out slowly, you help regulate your nervous system. Fights usually escalate when we start to feel attacked. If we are feeling attacked, offended, hurt, or misunderstood, part of our brain tells us to go into Fight/Flight/Freeze mode. Once in that mode, reactivity speeds up and we often say things we don’t mean. By taking a deep breath, we tell the body that it can relax a little bit. The pace of the conversation tends to slow down a little bit and we can engage less reactively/defensively.
2. Take a time-out– When we notice that we are triggered, sometimes taking a deep breath and slowing down the conversation isn’t enough. Sometimes we really have to put the conversation on hold. However, communication about a time-out is essential. Simply walking away, or telling someone you are leaving the conversation isn’t fair and can cause reactivity to increase. If we have to take a time-out, we have to be clear that we need a small break. We also have to be clear that we will return to the conversation and/or the relationship. “I am feeling overwhelmed and I have to take a time-out from this conversation. I will be back within an hour and we can finish this talk then.”
3. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view without saying “but . . . “– Often a fight continues on and on because we don’t feel that the other person truly understands what we are saying. In many cases, both perspectives are acceptable to both parties, but a disagreement rages on and on because neither person feels heard. Try to imagine a disagreement as two distinct different conversations. Really hear the other person’s perspective. Sit with it. Acknowledge it fully and even repeat what the other person said back to them. Once they feel heard, they are much more likely to be able to shift into hearing your point of view.
4. Plan ahead– If you know that you will be spending time with someone you tend to fight with, or if you know that you will have to address some sensitive topics with someone, plan ahead. Remind yourself of #1-#3 in advance. Try to explore within yourself reasons why these topics/these people make you feel reactive. Rehearse in your mind, or even role-play with someone, how you can calm yourself down when you know you will have to have a disagreement with someone.
5. State the importance of the relationship to you– This can be the most difficult, but also the most effective way of de-escalating a fight. When we disagree with someone, especially someone we care about, we tend to have a more sensitive Fight/Flight/Freeze system (and so do they!). This is why fights with our loved ones can often be the biggest fights. When things start to escalate, try to state how important the other person is to you, and how much you dislike disagreeing with them. “I hate disagreeing with you because you are my best-friend.” “You are the only co-worker I like being around, fighting with you sucks!” “I love you so much and when we disagree it makes me feel sick.” This helps re-assure the other person that you are not attacking them, and it helps you both reflect for a moment on the importance of your connection.
Disagreements and fights are inevitable in relationships. We will all have to have intense and challenging conversations with people we care about. Reminding ourselves of these 5 easy tips on a regular basis helps us make sure that when disagreements arise, we don’t let them get out of control.
Katie Larson, MFTC
Marriage and Family Therapy