We’ve all experienced it. One person gets upset. The other reacts. Before we know it, each is blaming the other in a full-blown argument, and feelings get hurt. In a heated argument, we may lose our temper and say things without thinking. It can feel like we are someone else.
Most of us would prefer never to argue again. But that’s not a realistic goal; arguments often catch us by surprise, seeming to erupt quite suddenly. So if we can’t avoid every argument, how do we improve our chances of handling a disagreement in a constructive way?
It helps to understand a few things about what happens during arguments.
The topic we argue about is rarely the real cause of our reaction. When someone reacts, it is usually because they perceive a threat—not necessarily a physical one. But it feels real. They may be afraid they will fail, look bad, be judged, or be dismissed. They react because something matters to them.
Once we react, our brains are not operating on logic. We act “without thinking” during a heated argument, because our brains, specifically the amygdala, are operating in fight-or-flight mode. Logic and reason, however, come from higher-level functions in the prefrontal cortex. Once shifted into reaction mode, we are truly “unreasonable.” At that moment, we are not our usual selves.
Arguments are not something you win. In the moment, arguers can feel compelled to make their point and be right. They are protecting themselves against a perceived enemy. But most likely, winning won’t feel great either. In the end, there is no victor. Real success is de-escalating the situation and having both people feel good about the relationship.
Being aware of these insights may not prevent every argument. But you can begin to notice when you or others are having a reaction that seems out of proportion to what is happening. Before getting pulled into a counter reaction, you can recognize the beginning of a dysfunctional pattern and choose different responses.
Here are a few ways to respond differently.
1. Don’t push back. Listen.
When someone is angry or upset, pushing back fuels their reaction. You can’t reason with them at that moment, and trying to fix it or minimize it won’t help. So take a deep breath. Then calmly listen to their statement and rephrase it back. Validate them by confirming you heard.
2. Label the emotions you see and feel.
One way to move from fight-or-flight to rational thinking is to label and verbalize the emotion. If you observe someone reacting, you can say with genuine empathy: “Wow, you’re really angry.” They will likely agree: “Of course I’m angry, because so-and-so did such-and-such.” Continue with naming the emotion: “I’m sure that’s upsetting.” And let them acknowledge: “Yes, I’m upset because…”
The act of labeling their emotions helps them release escalating energy and brings them back to reason. This is also why telling someone their emotions are not valid (“You’re overreacting.” “Why are you making this such a big deal?”) can escalate an argument. You are magnifying the threat instead of dissipating it.
3. Practice listening and labeling in less intense situations.
Most of us have people in our lives with whom we have more reactive dynamics. If those patterns have been around a long time, you may not be able to simply talk yourself out of an argument. Use less-serious disagreements with less-triggering people to practice listening and labeling emotions. Experience how letting the other person talk and express what they are feeling brings them back to their usual, rational self.
When it comes to your own big emotions, similar strategies can help. If you sense yourself getting angry and upset, identify the emotion and label it. If you can step away, take a deep breath and verbalize (to yourself). “That makes me so angry. That was so unfair. That wasn’t my fault. It makes me afraid that I will fail.” Give yourself a few minutes to get a handle on what happened and why it triggered a heated response in you.
If you can’t step away, try to state your emotion using “I” statements and avoid accusations. “I am really upset. It makes me very angry when this happens, because it feels like I don’t matter.” This allows you to express genuine emotions without lashing out with hurtful, harsh words. As you get better at labeling your emotions, you’ll become more aware and less likely to fall into a reaction pattern.
As you work to become more mindful, above all be kind to yourself. If you get into a heated argument, don’t judge yourself. Instead, consider how you might do better the next time.
Remember, humans have emotions. We all develop protections in response to what life brings. Having an emotional response is natural. But we also can choose how we honor and express those emotions, and how we react to others.
Note: We are talking here about life’s usual arguments. If you ever feel truly threatened with serious emotional or physical harm, remove yourself from the situation and seek help.