Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice
What are Strategies to Stop Arguments?
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to stopping an argument, there are several effective strategies for de-escalating conflicts. Some tips for halting an argument include:
- Practicing emotional regulation by using deep breathing or mindfulness techniques.
- Use active listening skills to demonstrate understanding and reduce conflict.
- Use “I” statements to avoid blame.
- Find common ground to create a sense of unity and foster cooperation.
- Take a break and temporarily disengage to allow your emotions to cool off.
- Use humor when appropriate to lighten the mood and diffuse tension.
- Seek understanding by using open-ended questions to gain insight into their perspective.
- Offer a practical solution that addresses both people’s concerns.
Disagreements aren’t always bad. Some of them can be productive and lead to a healthier relationship moving forward. However, it’s important to understand the difference between constructive discussions and harmful arguments.
Constructive discussions prioritize mutual understanding and collaborative problem-solving, fostering an atmosphere of respect and empathy.
On the other hand, harmful arguments often involve a win-lose mentality, characterized by personal attacks, blame, and a negative emotional tone, leading to unresolved conflicts and strained relationships.
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Constructive discussions aim for resolution and growth, while harmful arguments contribute to escalating emotions and the erosion of trust within relationships.
The trouble with the latter type of argument is that they don’t work.
I’m not talking about a good debate, where you have some great ideas, and they clash, and you start a healthy back-and-forth that feels fun. I mean arguments – where tension starts to rise, responses start to get personal, and you go around in circles without getting anywhere.
Often this kind of conflict takes on a life of its own, where you end up arguing about who does more of the chores or what time you came home last night, while bigger issues like caring, teamwork, and appreciation hide under the surface.
This is what many of the couples I work with mean when they say, “we can’t communicate.” They start what seems like a simple conversation, and within minutes it escalates into criticism, blame, hostility, or stonewalling.
It’s not just couples either – unwanted arguments happen in families, between friends, and at work. With some skill, though, you can learn to stop them, so you can get on with solving the real concerns.
Understanding the Harmful Effects of Arguments
Scientific research suggests that during arguments, immediate emotional responses include heightened activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotional regulation, indicating an acute stress response. 
Physiologically, arguing triggers the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which causes muscle tension, increased blood pressure, and increased heart rate. Essentially, when you are arguing with someone, your brain and body enter “fight or flight” mode.,
This is not an ideal time to resolve conflict with someone because engaging in arguments can impair the prefrontal cortex functioning, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision-making. This means that when you are in a stressful, activated state, such as during an argument or fight, you won’t be able to think clearly, resolve conflict, and offer logical solutions.
Emotional Flooding Leads to Escalation
Emotional flooding refers to an overwhelming surge of intense emotions that can hinder a person’s ability to think and respond rationally during an argument.
When someone experiences emotional flooding, the emotional centers of the brain, such as the amygdala, become highly activated, causing a fight-or-flight response.
This heightened emotional state can contribute to argument escalation by making it challenging for individuals to engage in constructive communication, leading to increased reactivity, defensiveness, and a greater likelihood of further conflict.
Recognizing When an Argument Has Become Destructive
It’s important to be able to recognize when an argument has escalated so much that it has become harmful, destructive, and in opposition to your goals. Being able to recognize this can help you to take a step back or initiate a break.
Here are some important signs to look for:
- Escalating emotions: Notice if emotions are escalating rapidly, leading to frustration, anger, and hurtful comments.
- Personal attacks: If you or the other person is saying hurtful, demeaning, or belittling things instead of focusing on the issue at hand, it may be time to take a break.
- Negative communication patterns: Identify recurring negative communication patterns like dismissive language, yelling, or interrupting.
- Lack of resolution: Acknowledge if the argument is persisting without progress or resolution or is going in circles.
- Physical signs of stress: Physical signs of stress include tense muscles, shallow breathing, and increased heart rate. This isn’t a helpful state for conflict resolution.
- Loss of empathy: Empathy is beneficial for resolution and effective communication, but empathy can diminish during times of stress and conflict. If the focus shifts from understanding the other person’s perspective to simply winning the argument, the fight has likely become destructive.
- Negative effect on well-being: Assess your feelings and emotional well-being, and if you are feeling particularly stressed, sad, anxious, or distressed, the argument is likely causing more harm than good.
What Doesn’t Work
Have you ever felt like you know you’re right, but the other person doesn’t understand? Or maybe you just have to have something go your way every once in a while? For some people, the feeling of urgency nudges them into using some of these tactics:
- Speaking more loudly
- Bringing up evidence
- Speaking with a tone of urgency
- Refusing to let the topic drop
- Following the other person from room to room
These strategies create problems, though. A raised voice can sound like an attack. Evidence provides an opportunity to get sidetracked by debating the evidence. Urgency often comes across as impatience or frustration.
If the conversation stays on track, you can keep trying to solve the problem. If it turns into an argument, you might need something another strategy.
How to Stop Arguments in a Relationship
No one likes arguing, especially in relationships. It can be hard to know how to stop arguing and fighting once it has started. Even though it may feel like it’s impossible to end the conflict, there are things you can do to de-escalate a situation and prevent future arguments from happening.
Relationship arguments can range from minor disagreements about household chores or choosing a restaurant for dinner, to major fights about trust issues or money. It is important to recognize what kind of disagreement you are having because that will help determine the best way to stop arguing. If the argument becomes more of a power struggle, then it may require professional help from a licensed therapist.
One way to stop arguments in a relationship is to take a break when things start to feel heated. This gives each person time to cool off and reflect on the situation before continuing the conversation. It’s also helpful to choose your words carefully and avoid name-calling or personal attacks. Remember that no one is perfect and it’s important to be respectful of each other’s feelings.
If arguments have become a regular occurrence in your relationship, then it may be time to take a step back and evaluate the underlying cause. Are you both feeling unheard or misunderstood? Is there an unresolved issue that needs to be addressed? Couples counseling can help couples identify patterns of behavior that may be leading to arguments. Additionally, taking time for self-care and engaging in activities that bring joy can also help couples reconnect and reduce the chances of future conflicts.
A Game-Changing Strategy
One of the kids in our neighborhood has a great way of handling the frustration of not getting his way. Like many six-year-olds, he loves winning. Young kids about this age are often obsessed with winning, losing, and rules. If there is a contest, Frankie naturally wants to come out on top.
Of course, the ball doesn’t always bounce that way. When Frankie plays Four-Square with his family, sometimes he misses a few returns. He doesn’t want to compromise his winning or his generally buoyant mood, so he just announces some new rules, and with such humor that everyone laughs. This game – the one where Frankie always wins – is known as “Frankieball.”
Adults, or course, have to use more finesse. The “I Win No Matter What” game is not so endearing when you’re twenty, or perhaps fifty.
Still, there’s a middle ground. When the game isn’t working – when discussions veer into argument territory – it’s helpful to pause and consider some new rules. Sometimes it’s better not to play at all.
There are many ways to graciously step back from an argument. Here are four simple statements you can use that will stop an argument 99 percent of the time.
1. “Let me think about that.”
This works in part because it buys time. When you’re arguing, your body prepares for a fight: your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure increases, you might start to sweat. In short, you drop into fight-or-flight mode. Marriage researcher John Gottman calls this “flooding”. Your mental focus narrows, so that you think about the danger in front of you rather than nuances and possibilities. Because of this, the ability to problem-solve plummets.
When there is no lion about to pounce, flooding gets in your way. Taking time to think allows your body to calm down. It also sends a message that you care enough to at least consider someone else’s point of view, which is calming for the other person in the argument.
2. “You may be right.”
This works because it shows willingness to compromise. This signal is enough to soften most people’s position, and allow them to take a step back as well.
Yet it’s hard to do. Sometimes my clients worry that giving an inch is very close to giving in. In my view, it’s usually the opposite: acknowledging someone else’s point of view usually leads to a softening. Look at some examples:
- Comment: Blue jeans aren’t appropriate to wear to work.
- Response: You may be right.
- Comment: This project is going to be late.
- Response: I’m working on it, but you may be right.
- Comment: You didn’t handle that very well.
- Response: You may be right.
Notice that with this Aikido-like sidestep, you are not agreeing that the other person is right. You’re only acknowledging that there might be something to their point of view, and implying that you’ll consider what they said.
3. “I understand.”
These are powerful words. They work because they offer empathy. They stop an argument by changing its direction – trying to understand someone else’s point of view isn’t an argument. They are sometimes hard to say because pausing to understand can sometimes feel like giving in. It’s important to remember that:
- Understanding doesn’t mean you agree.
- Understanding doesn’t mean you have to solve the problem.
With the pressure to assert yourself or fix it out of the way, you can just listen.
4. “I’m sorry.”
These words are perhaps the most powerful in the English language. One administrator I know says that half his job is apologizing to people.
Many people are reluctant to apologize, fearing that an apology is an admission of guilt and an acceptance of complete responsibility. This view unfortunately often makes the problem worse.
Apologies sometimes just express sympathy and caring: “I’m sorry you didn’t get that job.”
More often, though, apologies mean owning some part of the responsibility: “I’m sorry my comment came across that way. It’s not what I meant.”
Occasionally an apology is an admission of complete responsibility, and in those cases a heartfelt expression of regret becomes all the more important: “You’re right, I didn’t get it done on time. I’ll do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Apologies change the game from “It’s Not My Fault” to “I Understand.” Apologies are powerful; they have prevented lawsuits, improved business communication, and healed personal rifts.
5. “Can we take a break and revisit this later?”
If the argument feels like it is escalating or going on too long without any type of resolution, this is an effective way to stop the conversation—at least in the short term. Express that you think it would be a good idea to take a step back, process, and cool down before returning to the conversation with a fresh perspective.
Of course, sidestepping an argument is only the first step in sorting through an emotionally charged issue. Sometimes you have to dig beneath the surface so that you can talk about the beliefs and feelings underneath. Then there’s work to be done in negotiating a compromise or coming to an agreement. However, arguments keep you spinning in circles, and usually make the problem worse. Ready to conquer your overthinking habits? Take our empowering overthinking test today!
Sometimes the only way not to lose is to stop playing the game. Like Frankie, you can change the rules. Instead of, “One of Us Has to Win,” you can play, “Let’s Take Some Time with This.” With a simple statement, you can buy time, show willingness to compromise, offer empathy, or own part of the problem. These strategies are the basis of good communication. When the object of the game is to stop arguing, both players can win.
- Kemeny, M.E. (2003). The Psychobiology of Stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4).
- Dickerson, S. S., & Kemeny, M. E. (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological bulletin, 130(3), 355–391.
- Salzman, C. D., & Fusi, S. (2010). Emotion, cognition, and mental state representation in amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Annual review of neuroscience, 33, 173–202.
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