Have you ever found yourself in the middle of  heated argument with a loved one or colleague and you're not even sure how it got started? It happens more often and more easily than you might think. Thousands of years of evolution have left us wired for conflict, much quicker to go on the defensive--or even on the attack--than look for ways to compromise and cooperate. 

But it doesn't have to be that way. Before any conversation devolves into a shouting match, you have the opportunity to shift gears and have a fruitful discussion instead. So next time you find yourself and the person or people you're talking with heading down that bad path to all-out conflict, do something else instead. Stop and say nothing for a beat or two, during which you should take a couple of deep, slow breaths. Check your body language and if you've drifted into an aggressive posture or stance, change your position to something more neutral or friendly. 

Then try saying one of the following phrases. I can't guarantee they'll prevent you from having an argument, but they will give you your best shot at taking the conversation in a different, more constructive direction:

1. What I heard you say is...

Most people get angriest when they feel dismissed, ignored, or misunderstood. That's why repeating back what someone has told you (ideally in your own phrasing) is one of the best ways there is to keep a conversation from turning hostile. You've just made it clear that you care about the other person's viewpoint and want to you understand it. Even better, if someone said something they didn't mean, or what you heard wasn't what was intended, they get the chance to set the record straight.

2. What's your biggest concern?

Many people instinctively avoid naming their worst fears. That means the other person may be afraid about something you're not even aware of. Asking them to tell you what worries them the most means you may be able to alleviate those fears. And, once again, it tells them you care about what they care about.

3. What do you need right now?

Again, you've shown you care about their needs. You've also opened the door to finding a constructive compromise, since solving their most immediate problems may give you the time and good will to find a bigger, more permanent solution. 

4. What would it take to make you happy?

This is the bigger-picture version of the previous question. Asking someone what would make them happy tells them you care about their happiness. And you'll often be surprised at how something relatively simple may make all the difference.

5. How are you feeling?

This is a good phrase to use early in your conversation, giving you the chance to gauge the other person's emotional and physical state. You're also inviting him or her to check in and see if an emotional upset or physical discomfort is affecting your interaction. But be careful. You don't want to suggest that someone's concerns are all caused by low blood sugar or lack of sleep. That will just make things worse.

6. I'm afraid of...

You've asked the other person to voice his or her greatest fears. You should do the same because chances are those fears are driving you into the argument you seek to avoid. And once you've spoken them out loud you may learn that those fears are unfounded.

7. I'm sad because...

It's all too easy to mistake sadness for anger, and vice versa. So if you feel like you're heading for an argument, or you find yourself getting angry, stop for a moment and ask yourself if you're reacting to a feeling of loss instead. Telling someone else what you're sad about--like saying what you're afraid of--means that you're willing to let down your defenses and be honest. They may react by doing the same.

8. Let's get some ice cream.

It doesn't have to be ice cream, although ice cream will literally cool you down and seems to carry its own happiness factor. It could be a cup of coffee, or a yogurt, or even a glass of water. The point is to satisfy a basic physical need, such as hunger or thirst, together. That may set you on the path to filling other needs as well.

9. Let's take a break until...

Sometimes all you need to avoid an argument is a little time apart to get over feeling angry and get a fresh perspective. Taking a break until later that day, or the following morning, can be a great way to accomplish this. But make sure to specify a time when you would like to resume the conversation. Otherwise, you risk leaving conflicts unresolved and resentments simmering.

10. What if...?

For almost every situation there's a potential out-of-the-box solution. When my husband and I locked horns over his desire to live in an RV, and mine to live in downtown Seattle, he proposed that we get both and go back and forth between them. It was an impractical solution that we never implemented, but it turned the conflict on its head and eventually led us to a solution that works for both of us.

11. Do we need to agree about this?

People often get locked into conflict when each tries to convince the other that his or her viewpoint is the correct one. In many cases, that's unnecessary. I don't need you to believe what I believe--I just need us to find a course of action we can both accept. Next time you find yourself trapped in a debate about ideology or principle, ask yourself if you can find a solution tht would satisfy both parties, without either convincing the other that they're right. Chances are, you can.

Those are the best ways I know to keep a conversation from becoming an argument. What are yours?

Published on: Nov 25, 2015
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