Hot-Headed? How to Stay Calm During an Argument

It’s one of those things you know but can’t always master: The more upset you become during a discussion, and the quicker it escalates, the more likely you are to be in the middle of a full-blown argument with your boss, your brother, or your significant other. Part of that isn’t your fault — as your body perceives a threat (to your job, your values, or your pride), it naturally prepares you to survive battle. Your heart rate increases, as does the succession of breaths you take.

Another thing to know is that in terms of fights with your significant other, men are more likely to react to in-the-moment offenses, while women are more likely to react to patterns of disagreement over time. In other words, men are hardwired to react at the drop of a hat to whichever triggers make them upset. Knowing about these differences can give you a leg up the next time you’d rather avoid terse words and a night with someone sleeping on the couch. If order to avoid a screaming match, give these six tips a try.

1. Know your triggers

Couple arguing

Know what makes you angry. | iStock.com

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, said someone who was interested in the weights of abstract items. In the case of remaining calm during an argument, the weird saying is definitely true. By raising your self-awareness about what gets you hot under the collar, you’ll be in a better position to ward off conflict before it even starts, writes Bruna Martinuzzi, president of Clarion Enterprises.

“To manage your emotions, you need to know your hot buttons — those situations and people that are likely to make you lose your patience and composure. Chances are, most of the things that irk you are of a recurring nature — they’re a catalyst or a trigger that gets your adrenaline going,” Martinuzzi says. Not only will this help you to prepare for the onslaught of frustration, but you’ll also be able to see where you might play a contributing role in the conflict, Stanley Gross says in an article for Psych Central.

“The more you do this, the more you’ll find yourself in the driver’s seat rather than letting others pull your emotional strings,” Martinuzzi says.

2. Take a break

man looking frustrated

Know when to step away for a moment. | iStock.com

When you see storm clouds on the horizon, respectfully ask to take a breather before continuing the discussion. This doesn’t mean rushing out of your boss’s office or slamming the kitchen door closed on your wife. Instead, say you want to resolve the problem, but would like to collect your thoughts first.

“Your arousal is a sign that you are not prepared to discuss your differences in a rational way. Find a way to stop the arguing until you both have calmed down,” Gross says.

If you can, take a break for at least 30 minutes. According to psychologist Jennifer Baker, that’s about how long it takes for someone to completely calm down from an initial fight-or-flight reaction. In this case, the phrase “take a walk” might actually be a good thing.

3. Breathe

Man taking deep breaths

Take a deep breath. | iStock.com

When your body realizes you’re about to be in an argument, your blood pressure increases and your breathing quickens. By taking a few slow breaths, you’ll be able to stem the tide of adrenaline that’s coursing through your body that might otherwise take your fight up a few notches — or decibels.

Nurses are trained to manage stress by taking a few slow, deep breaths before reacting to situations, and what’s right for health professionals under stress is probably a good idea for the rest of us, too.

Stopping to breathe also gives you a chance to analyze why you’re upset in the first place. Was it something the other person said? Is it an unrelated stressor that you’re projecting? Are you just hungry? You can be as self-aware of your triggers as you like, but pausing to breathe will help you identify the ones you didn’t notice before.

4. Watch your word choice

Young couple looking at bank statement

Be careful what you say. | iStock.com

Sticks and stones might be the best option for breaking bones, but your words have all the power to change the direction of a looming argument. Avoid negative phrases like, “You are wrong!” and instead diplomatically pointing out there’s another point of view — yours.

In addition, it’s important to limit the direct criticisms you heap on the other person, especially if it’s your significant other. A study published by researchers at the University of Southern California found that when spouses directed criticisms at one another, the stress levels rose and the arguments escalated. Men experience greater stress during direct criticisms, which explains why your temper flares when your spouse says you’re incompetent or you’re wrong. Women experience anger more readily when they recognize a pattern of criticism, such as when you bring up errors from the past.

Instead of generalized character attacks, Match.com suggests giving a concrete example of why you’re upset. Avoid a phrase like, “You’re so selfish!” by explaining you believe you only watch shows that the other person wants to watch, and ask to switch it up a bit. The other person doesn’t take it as a personal attack, and you can move toward a compromise much faster.

In addition, research from Ohio State University suggests that using compliments, showing understanding, and giving validation to the other person’s point of view go a long way to extinguishing what might have been a no-holds-barred sparring match.

5. Listen

a heterosexual couple lie on their stomachs in bed while they have a discussion

You’ll get nowhere if you don’t listen to the other side of the argument. | iStock.com

Unless you make your living as a counselor, chances are your listening skills could use some work. Not only is this a common sign of respect, but it also gives you the ability to see if there are areas where you are also at fault, according to the other person.

On top of that, listening allows you to actively demonstrate the understanding you tried to convey in the previous step. If you say you understand but don’t actually listen, your partner will know you didn’t actually care enough to try to see the situation from their point of view.

What’s more, using “constructive communication” is key to a lasting relationship, no matter who it is with. In a study of marital couples in arguments, people who used negotiation, mutual expression, and discussion were much more likely to resolve their arguments smoothly. They and their spouses were also much more likely to report satisfaction with their relationship as a result, according to findings from researchers at Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of California, Berkeley.

6. Limit caffeine

Croissant and coffee on wooden background

Limit your caffeine intake. | iStock.com

If you’ve tried many of these tips or simply find yourself in cycles of arguments more than normal, try limiting your caffeine intake. Ingesting more than 500 milligrams of caffeine per day can elevate the anxiety you feel and the stress hormones that dictate your body’s reactions. An average cup of coffee has about 100 milligrams of caffeine, so if you’re drinking more than five cups of coffee (or a couple Ventis from Starbucks), try scaling back to see if your tendencies toward frustration dissipate.

Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS