The worst part about being in a heated argument is nobody feels heard or understood. When we are escalated, we are operating from our limbic system, that is, our emotions. When heightened emotions are arguing back and forth with each other, there is no space for logic or solutions. In this article, 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 attacks you, it would be normal for your mind and body to enter fight, flight, or freeze mode (your evolutionary instincts in the face of a perceived threat). However, any 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. Learn to self-regulate by developing tools found here.
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 they are heated, it might escalate things further because they are not able to think clearly in this moment.
Instead, simply acknowledge and validate what your spouse is saying or feeling. To learn how to validate even if you don’t agree with your partner, click here. Be genuine in your validation – don’t be dismissive or condescending. Express yourself sincerely,
“Okay, I can see why that made you angry. What can I do to help?“
“This sounds important, I’m listening”.
“I feel sad hearing how you feel. I had no idea you were experiencing any of this.“
Step 3: Take a break or redirect towards problem-solving. Through your validation, hopefully your spouse is less heated and also more regulated because of feeling heard and understood. At this point, if you think the argument will become heated again, the two of you can decide to take a 20 minute break where you both agree to continue regulating your emotions before revisiting the conversation. Or, if you both are well regulated by now, redirect the conversation towards understanding the problem and finding solutions. This might include figuring out what events led up to the 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. Be mindful of how you are communicating because criticism will only result in escalation 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!