How To Stop an Unproductive Argument Dead in Its Tracks

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You know that moment where you realize an argument has gotten completely out of hand? It's no longer a calm, cool debate about differing opinions, or bantering and bickering with your significant other. No, you two are going at it with an aggressive, toxic free-for-all. But you, most likely a good human being, would prefer to end the confrontation, to disconnect from an argument that at best is going nowhere, and at worst is going somewhere vile. Luckily, there's a few soft methods on how to stop a fight before it becomes irreparable.

If things are about to go off the rails, the biggest way to hit pause is to simply ask yourself why you're in the argument at this moment. If there's a competitive undercurrent to your argument, it's usually not for the right reasons.

Experts In This Article

"The point of a healthy argument is to get to cooperation or compromise if not agreement," says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder: The Essential Family Guide. "When you’re arguing to be right, to flex on someone or to prove them wrong, it’s going off the rails. You might start out trying to find cooperation, but there’s a shift inside you toward just wanting to win."

Likewise, licensed family and marriage therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, shares that you can tell an argument is boiling over when you're unsafe or unsure about what's going to happen next. "If you feel that tensions are escalating, let the person know that you're going to have to hang up the phone or walk away so that you both can become calm," says Thompson. "When people are fighting they are in their fight or flight response and no one is thinking clearly."

The first option is to be really authentic about the situation and divorce yourself from the conversation. You can do that with a simple statement like, "This isn’t going anyplace good. Can we take a break and finish this when we’re calm?" You can also get solution-oriented if the argument is around a clear problem such as, say, whose turn is it to wash the dishes.

"If authenticity isn’t going to happen, just end it and get some space," says Dr. Daramus. Tell them you have an appointment or need to finish something for work. Find any way to stop things from rolling downhill any further."

Finally, if you've taken your step back and maybe realized that your argument is kind of like, a silly tiff with a loved one that's just gone to a weird place, nonverbal cues can be really powerful here.

"While arguing, pour a cup of coffee for yourself and one to them, too," Dr. Daramus. "Help them with a task in order to mix tough messages with nonverbal supportive ones. Stay physically relaxed and open, neither aggressive or submissive. It’s just like in the movies, when a screaming, aggressive character looks really scary until someone wanders in, acts curious, and cracks some jokes, and somehow looks much stronger than the aggressive one."

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