The worst part about being in a heated argument is nobody actually feels heard or understood. When we are escalated, we are actually operating from our limbic system, i.e., our emotions. When heightened emotions are arguing back and forth with each other, there is no space for logic or solutions. Here, I will share some of the steps I use in sessions to de-escalate a heated argument with couples. These are the same steps I help couples to implement themselves at home and the same steps I use in my own marriage.
Step 1: Regulate your OWN emotion. This is the key step to de-escalating an argument, albeit the most difficult one. When someone comes attacking, our natural response is to fight, flight, or freeze (our evolutionary instincts in the face of a perceived threat). Either of those responses would make your spouse feel like you’re not listening to them, which would only fuel the fire and make them escalate more. So, if you feel that rising anger making you want to fight back, the rising fear making you want to walk away, or the increasing numbness making you freeze up – pause. Take a deep breath. Then take it again. Tune out what your spouse is saying for a few moments, and listen to yourself. Remind yourself what you want to achieve right now. Do you want to escalate this argument into a fight where both people walk away feeling angry and hurt? Or do you want to come to a resolution where both people walk away feeling heard and understood? If you want to achieve the latter, you have to keep taking those deep breaths (which help regulate the limbic system) and engage in self-talk, i.e., what you need to remind yourself in your head as many times as needed to help regulate your own emotion in the moment. Some examples are, “I feel scared but if I walk away things will become worse”; “I am hurt and angry, but if I yell back right now, I will feel more hurt and angry”; “I feel too numb to respond but he/she will become angrier – I need to show that I’m listening.”
Step 2: Re-engage with acknowledgment and validation. Once you feel regulated enough, tune back in and acknowledge what your spouse is saying. Don’t try to present your own perspective or problem-solve at this time because your spouse is still heated. When the limbic system takes over, the cognitive part of our brain – the thinking brain – goes offline. If you try to explain your side or problem solve when he/she is still heated, it might escalate things further because they are not able to think clearly in this moment. At this point, simply acknowledge and validate what your spouse is saying or feeling. Remember, you don’t have to agree, you just have to let them know that you are hearing what they are saying. Be genuine – don’t be dismissive or condescending. Be genuine when you say, “okay, I can see why that made you angry,” or “I see your perspective,” or “I understand and I want to hear more”. None of this is you saying you agree with them, rather, you’re just acknowledging their perspective of a situation. But the key here is to keep regulating yourself to keep calm and stay engaged. By doing this, you are actually modeling the behavior for them which will help to regulate their limbic system too. Continue to self-regulate and acknowledge what they are feeling.
Step 3: Take a break or redirect towards problem-solving. By now, your spouse will have become less heated and slightly more regulated. At this point, if you think the argument can become heated again, the two of you can decide to take a 20 minute break where you both agree to continue cooling off and come back with a different mindset. Or, if you both are well regulated by now, redirect the conversation towards understanding the problem and finding solutions. Be mindful of how you are communicating now because criticism will only result in escalation again. This might include figuring out what events led up to the heated argument, clarifying any miscommunication or misunderstanding by either of you, and brainstorming ideas, possible solutions, or an actual plan to avoid an argument of this nature again. Once you identify the problem areas and come up with a plan, take responsibility to act on it!
Self-regulation, re-engagement with validation, and redirection towards problem-solving are the three effective steps to de-escalate a heated argument. Try it out the next time you find yourself escalating with your spouse and leave a comment to share how it went!