Arguments don't just come out of nowhere (though it can certainly feel like they do). They arise when we aren't paying close attention. Perhaps you stopped paying attention to what's happening between you and the person you're speaking with and missed the subtle cues that indicate a rise in tensions. Or maybe you didn't realize that you were getting defensive and upset and raising your voice. Or it's possible that you didn't know that the topic you were bringing up is laden with emotional triggers for the other person.
Disagreements are not bad (and are inevitable), but arguments are often counterproductive because we shut down and stop listening to one another. The real danger is the cooling effect arguments can have on our willingness to initiate difficult conversations. Many of us avoid confrontation because we are afraid of conflict. That makes it easy to put off important conversations that need to happen. But if you know how to stop a discussion from escalating into an argument, you can reduce your fear of confrontation. Learning how to defuse an argument is one of the most critical communication skills you can develop. It allows you to focus on building healthy relationships with your colleagues and ensures that you get the information you need to move forward.
How do you defuse an argument? Direct, honest, and sometimes difficult conversations are essential to creating a healthy workplace where everyone feels heard, valued, and respected. In The Communication Protocol, I teach teams how to communicate effectively and deal with conflict appropriately. The result is improved teamwork, productivity, and profitability. Follow these five steps to defuse your next argument and become a stronger, more confident leader:
Hit the pause button.
Once you realize that a conversation is getting heated, take a deep breath and comment on the rising tension. Stop making your point, reacting, or talking about the topic. Shift your focus to what's going on between you and the other person. If the tension continues to rise, respectfully take charge and say, "This conversation is getting intense, and we don't want it to turn into an argument. Let's take a quick break and revisit the topic later. But for now, we can take a moment to collect our thoughts."
Collect your thoughts.
What is the message you are trying to convey in this conversation? Think about how you want to show up and the most important point you want the other person to take away from your interaction. How might you approach it a little differently next time? Remember, you can only control yourself and your reactions.
Make a choice.
It takes two people to continue an argument. Plan to stay in control. Don't focus on winning or having the final word. Focus on the outcome you are hoping to achieve by having the conversation. Before you re-engage, if you know you tend to get upset or if the topic is emotionally loaded, make a conscious decision to remain calm and respectful, even if the interaction gets heated again.
If you hurt the other person's feelings, take responsibility for the harm you caused, even if it was unintentional. Don't get defensive. Sincerely own the part you played in creating tension and set the stage for a better outcome by sharing your intentions for the conversation: "I'm sorry I upset you. I want us to get along and work through this together." Avoid the temptation to justify your behavior or require the other person to apologize for their role in the argument.
Return to the topic at hand, taking your time and remaining calm. Stay engaged in the conversation and stay attuned to the energy between you. Also, notice the other person's emotional state so you can recognize when the conversation gets heated again. It is natural for both of you to feel a little uncomfortable, but if you proceed slowly and respectfully, you will both have your say and move forward together.
To defuse an argument, stay calm and notice if the energy between you and the other person starts to shift. That shift can indicate that it's time to take a break. Give each other the benefit of the doubt that you both want to preserve the relationship and resolve the conflict. The more often you engage in high-stakes conversations, the more equipped you will be handling them should the interaction become increasingly tense.
When you learn how to handle conflicts well, you not only build trust with those around you, you also gain their respect.