How to Handle Heated Arguments

Arguments can be painful. Sometimes you say things you didn't want to say, causing pain to the other person. And the physical sensation of anger that arguments often cause is also unpleasant. If we could all be rational and say what we wanted to say, delivering our message, our information or our request calmly and with good manners, and if we could do this all the time, arguments wouldn't be a problem. But that's not the way things are, so arguments are a problem.

What makes them problematic is a feedback loop from the other person to you and back to the other person. Have you ever heard feedback at a concert? It can happen when the guitar or the microphone gets too close to the speakers. What happens is first a sound is made, which comes out the speaker in the form of sound. The vibrations of the sound then vibrate the strings of the guitar or the inside of the microphone, producing an even louder sound, which then comes out the speaker, vibrating the strings or mic even more, and so on.

The sound gets louder and louder until someone unplugs the power or turns down the volume, or until the speaker gets blown. I was at a concert once where the feedback got so loud it completely drowned out the singer and the rest of the instruments. They had to stop playing and turn the amplifiers off before all our eardrums popped!

The same kind of thing happens when two people get into an argument. Since you are a fundamentally social animal, it is somewhat upsetting to have even a minor disagreement with another person. It makes your heart beat a little faster. You get physically aroused. You breath a little faster. Small physical changes happen that the other person can see. Your face changes. And when the other person sees and hears (and who knows, maybe even smells) the signs of physical arousal — signaling fear or anger — on your face and in your body posture, and in your tone of voice, it triggers his own stressful response.

We are profoundly social. Even anti-social people are profoundly social; they are affected by other people whether they like it or not. That's just the way we are.

So when you're talking to the other person, your voice gets a tiny bit louder when there is a disagreement. Your heart beats a little faster, your eyes dilate ever so slightly, and, since this is a small degree of upset, you don't think as well. You become slightly more one-sided and narrow in your thoughts on the subject.

And just like the speaker to a guitar, your small change in tone and volume of your voice, your small change in the narrowness of your point of view, tends to cause the same reaction in the other person. If this is your boss or the IRS or a policeman, your desire to survive might cause you to hold back your reaction and remain calm. But if this is a person you feel safe with, if it is a family member or a good friend, you will probably not hold back your reaction. So the other person will sense your upset, even if it's very mild, and it will trigger the same reaction in her, causing her heart to beat faster and causing her point of view to narrow and become more one-sided.

You are now sensing her physical arousal and narrowing of her point of view, and maybe you notice her voice getting a little louder and a bit more hostile, and when she is upset with you, her feelings of affection, liking, and respect tend to diminish temporarily. You sense this. You hear it. You see it. It may be subtle, but you can tell. This tends to increase your anger or fear, so maybe you get even louder and the things you say are progressively more irrational and one-sided; there is more distrust and contempt in what you say, and this gets across.

The two of you are in a feedback loop. It will tend to get worse and worse unless one of you does something about it. One of the main things you can do to stop the escalation is to stop talking to each other for a little while. If you're angry, this might be hard to do because one of the things that goes along with anger is a strong desire to get your point across. In a state of anger, you want to make the other person agree with you (which is, of course, usually impossible). Breaking off the conversation is often the last thing you want to do. Unless you know what's good for you.

If you are in an escalating feedback loop, probably the best thing you can do is go into another room or go for a walk. Get out of the direct face to face interaction. Back in the day when I had a blistering temper, I used to drive up to a store and call from a pay phone and we would talk. It often worked because it removed the ability to see those signs of increasing arousal. We could still hear it, but it usually reduced the intensity enough that we could talk without screaming. Usually.

But it wasn't good enough. When I was angry, I often said things that were very hurtful. And it didn't matter that I said later, "I'm sorry. I take it back." Klassy (my wife) didn't forget what I said. Someone once said it takes 20 statements of praise to overcome one criticism. And that's probably about right. Anger is destructive. Those nasty words are destructive. They say sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you. But that isn't true.

head shrinking

A friend of mine was asked to be an advocate for a battered child. The child was too young to testify for himself, so the court appointed my friend to testify for him. The court gave my friend a big stack of materials to study; then he was supposed to go around to the child's teachers and doctor and mother and interview them, gathering information.

In some of the materials he was supposed to read, he found that there is a kind of abuse called emotional abuse. No sticks and stones are used. It is done with neglect and verbal abuse and so on. A person can be emotionally abused without ever being physically touched.

When someone is physically abused, there are things to look for: bruises, broken bones, cuts, etc. But when someone is emotionally abused, what do you look for? Strangely enough, there are physical signs of emotional abuse. One of them is an abnormally small head. They don't really know why it happens, but when children are emotionally abused, their head is sometimes noticeably too small for their body. Words can hurt. Words can do serious damage. We should change that old rhyme: Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can shrink your head!

You don't want that feedback loop between you and someone you love to escalate. It almost immediately improves if you just stop talking and looking at each other. At least it stops getting worse. If you carry on your argument in your thoughts, you might remain aroused, but at least you aren't emotionally abusing anyone. But I've found something that works really well, and I'd like to share it with you.

When I have that feeling of an escalating feedback loop, I excuse myself to go write. Klassy is all for it. We've had enough experience with it to know it's a good idea, so she has no problem with it. In fact, she is the one who says sometimes: "Why don't you go write."

It can be done without writing, but it is more difficult. It is hard enough to follow a rational train of thought when you feel fine. When you are angry, it is much more difficult. So I suggest writing. It doesn't really matter what you write. But try to be calm and rational. Even when you're angry, it is pretty easy, especially when you know someone else will be reading it, which is the second part of this that I recommend.

When you are done writing, when you have worked things out with yourself, when you have come to some conclusions and seen where you may have been a little one-sided, when you can concede some points to the other (and have written it), or when you have gotten some insight and written it, then bring it to the person you were arguing with and let her read it. And ask her to read it through once, and then discuss it with you, point by point or however she wants to do it. Ask her to use the written material as a jumping off point for discussion. At this point, do a lot of listening. It won't be very hard, because you've already said what you had to say on the paper.

This may seem artificial or time-consuming. If your arguments don't cause a lot of problems, then it won't be worth it, so don't bother.

But if you experience pain or give a lot of pain to another because of arguments, here is a way out. Talk it over with the person. Let him or her read this article. And commit yourselves to try it next time.

How will you know when your argument has escalated to the point where you should go away and write? There are lots things you can use as cues: when you feel angry, when you can tell your voice is getting loud (that's the one I use), when you notice your point of view is getting one-sided, when one of you stops listening. Pick one of these cues and make up your mind that the next time it happens, that cue will remind you of your plan, and then do it.

Arguments are important. Avoiding arguments is not a good strategy for a long-term relationship. You need to be able to discuss things, and it is inevitable that you won't agree on everything. It is equally inevitable that sometimes you will get mad. This method will not get you to agree on everything, but it will allow you to communicate on those topics where you disagree without shrinking each others' heads!

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and Self-Reliance, Translated. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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