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How to keep Your Calm When Arguments Get Heated

I spent my formative young adult years working on an “escalation queue” in a call center. I worked 10 hours a day with overtime every chance I got, while going to school full time in between shifts, which basically meant that for close to 12 hours a day people yelled at me for things that had nothing to do with me nor were within my span of control to fix.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, I assure you that it is not – just ask any of my call center brethren that worked “elevated inquiries”, “supervisor calls”, “level 2 considerations”, “management review queues” or any other fancy names for being the whipping boy/girl for customer complaints.  They will likely tell you that there would be days during which they seriously considered faking their death and escaping to Costa Rica with the insurance money.

During one of those days when it seemed like every one of my calls began with a stream of profanities the moment I finished my greeting, it occurred to me that since I talk to roughly 150-170 people daily, this may just be a great opportunity to learn how different types of people handle heated situations and to practice how to exit them gracefully. My motivation at the time was simple – I was just tired of being yelled at! And so began my learning experiment that has lasted throughout my entire life.

To begin with, conflict is ever-present in the human condition. We can experience conflict with others and even with ourselves.  It can be small-scale such an argument with your toddler or large scale such a war between nations.  It could be over in seconds or last years.  Some conflicts get resolved, and others do not.  Conflict can be productive or unproductive.  It is a key driver for change, and it’s important that we know how to manage it with the best possible outcome.

You’re Hot and you’re cold

How we communicate during conflict is going to have a significant impact on how we experience the conflict itself and how we feel about its outcome. Research indicates that we operate in two spaces when it comes to our cognition, or our mental actions and processes.  We could find ourselves in the cool or cold cognitive process, or we could reside in the one known as hot cognitive process.  As you can easily guess, cold cognition rests on facts and evidence, while hot cognition deals in feelings and emotions.

When we are in our cold cognitive system, we gather our thoughts, research our facts and take our time before responding. When we are in our hot cognition, we respond more spontaneously, emotionally, rapidly and are prone to both saying and doing things we may regret later, after we’ve traveled back to the cold cognitive state. Some other signs that your conflict is “hot” may include strong language, added aggression, more physical movement, etc.

So how do we move our conflict from its hot state into the cooler climates? And how do we keep it from going completely cold, where we run the risk of the individuals completely shutting down and not looking for the best solution?  To begin with, let’s remember why things move into a “hot cognitive” state in the first place.

Chances are the conflict gets heated when we are operating from a highly emotional state. We may feel threatened, powerless, hurt – ultimately our very basic survival instincts kick in, and we lash out to react. So it’s important that we help both our counterpart and ourselves to cool down before going any further.

Cool Cognition Steps

Let’s start with ourselves – remember that speech about putting our safety jacket on first that the flight attendants give us before we take off?  We want to make sure we are not contributing to the escalating conflict temperatures in any way.  Here are some ways to do that:

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  1. Physical: Take a deep breath or several. This sounds simplistic, but breathing helps the oxygen flow and allows us to focus and think more clearly. It also centers our attention on an activity which helps look away from emotions for awhile. Take a walk if possible – a quick change of scenery forces us to change perspective. Get a drink of water – this works very similarly to breathing plus hydration is never a bad thing for our bodies.
  2. Emotional: Refocus on the facts of what the conflict is about. Did a disagreement about which household bill to pay quickly turn into “Why did I marry you in the first place, you’re always irresponsible” shouting match? Return yourself to the topic at hand mentally.
  3. Take a bird’s eye view or be your own third wheel: How would you handle the same issue if a stranger was asking you for your perspective? Chances are you would be a lot more detached emotionally and likely to consider both sides of the interaction for the best solution.

Now let’s move on to communicating with our partner (notice I did not say opponent as that automatically places us on the opposite sides of the boxing ring and that adds to the conflict). We want to help them get to the cool cognition as well and together to arrive at the best solution.  A lot of folks say the goal of conflict resolution is compromise – I tend to disagree.  In a compromise, one of the parties or even both are still forced to “give up” something which leads to hard feelings that linger.  The goal is to build a stronger relationship and come up with a good solution.  That means looking beyond what you want or what your partner wants to help a new idea or outcome emerge from your discussion.

  1. Hear your partner out. This takes time because at first, they may need to talk through all the emotions. But this is an essential step because without completing it you will be returning to the same place in the conflict over and over.
  2. Acknowledge that what they are feeling is valid. You don’t have to take the blame or agree – just let them know that it’s ok to feel how they feel. Some good phrases here are, “You are dealing with some tough situations right now”; “No one likes to feel belittled, I get that”; “Of course it would be upsetting to constantly feel like you’re the only one pulling your weight”. This does not mean you concede your position – you’re simply making them feel supported and getting ready for the next step.
  3. Make it a team effort. A good strategy here is to ask your partner – “So what is our goal here?” That forces the conversation from the past into the future and also lets them know you are in this together. In my “escalation days,” the phrase that always got my customers into the cooler cognition was, “I’d like to work together to make this happen”.
  4. Keep the main thing the main thing. Remember the big picture and let the little things slide.

Some other helpful tips are:

  • No name calling or personal attacks. If your partner gets into that mode, remind them in a positive way of the goal. “I can tell you’re still bothered by this situation and that is why you just said that to me. Let’s talk about the next steps.”
  • Be open-minded. Sometimes your solution is not the only one and not the best one.
  • Sometimes it helps to take a break and regroup later.
  • Be vulnerable and be compassionate. Both of you are human, and it helps to remember that.

So the next time you find yourself in the ring of fire of conflict, try these techniques and watch your relationships improve and grow!

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Julia Hewitt, M.S. Psychology
Julia Hewitt, M.S. Psychology

Julia is passionate about helping others on their self-discovery path, be it with relationships, life's purpose, personal goals or simply coping skills. She believes in the power of words, thoughts and in the beauty of language. She holds a Masters in Psychology and a Masters in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix as well as a Bachelors from Arizona State University, and volunteers on a teen crisis hotline.

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