Conversations don’t always go the way we want, even if we enter them with the best intentions. Emotions can run high, we can say hurtful things, and everything can rapidly get out of hand. Often, the closer we are to the person we’re arguing with, the more intense the fallout. If one of the individuals involved has a mental health issue—be it depression, anxiety, an anger issue, or something like bipolar disorder—the situation can become even more volatile.
The good news is that there are ways to de-escalate tensions and resolve conflicts. Arguments are inevitable, but knowing some key conflict resolution strategies can stop them from becoming the painful explosions we fear. These skills could even lead to personal growth and more effective communication overall.
Recognize Early Signs of Escalation
One of the most important skills when it comes to emotional de-escalation techniques is simply recognizing when things are escalating. Every person and every relationship is going to have different indicators that things are getting heated. Some people may start by giving you the cold shoulder. Others may ask questions they don’t expect an answer to, such as, “Why don’t you ever take out the trash?”
Insults, sarcasm, name-calling, interruptions, or ignoring are all common signs that the situation is steadily building to something worse. After all, once you’ve been insulted, it’s often a reflex to insult the person right back, which just invites bigger and more hurtful actions. In some cases, the signs may be even more clear. Individuals may become physically aggressive or invade the other person’s personal space.
Pay attention to both your and the other person’s verbal and non-verbal cues. This requires active listening, empathy, and observation skills, so it’s not always easy. A person’s volume, tone, facial expressions, gestures, and body language can all reveal a great deal about how they feel and what their intentions are.
Practice Active Listening and Empathy
What does practicing active listening and empathy actually look like? Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing where they are coming from is often far easier said than done. If they are speaking, don’t interrupt, even if you disagree with what they’re saying. Actually listen to their points and attempt to understand why they are saying the things they are. Even if they are coming from an illogical or emotional place, there will be a purpose and message that you can grasp. Just by listening, you are starting the process of validating how they feel—one of the first steps in de-escalation.
Once you have heard what they have to say, you need to process it. Maybe you forgot to take out the trash—you may even have a good reason for it—but why is it causing an argument now? Something pushed them to this point. It could have built up over time or they could have a particularly terrible day and that slip-up is the final straw.
The other person may feel like you’re not pulling your weight around the house or they could have already asked you multiple times so it feels like you’re ignoring them. It may not even be about the trash. If you don’t understand why the topic is an issue, ask open-ended questions with a genuine interest in the answers. Try not to come across as flippant or sarcastic.
At their core, arguments are typically about recognition. The other person just wants to know that you are recognizing their feelings and that both of you are coming to an understanding that helps address them.
Use Calming Language and Tone
Often, the instant that your conversation partner senses any level of aggression, anger, or other negative indicator, they will mirror that behavior. Communication will break down and the conversation will go nowhere pleasant. Calming communication methods are your best tool for keeping a situation under control.
Think about how to express a sense of calm and openness. Lower your voice, give the other person some distance, and relax your face. If you need to take a moment to collect yourself, just take a deep breath and encourage yourself before continuing. Avoid any actions that could seem aggressive or closed-off. Arm or leg crossing can make it seem like you are shutting yourself off from the situation.
While listening, give signs that you are still engaged. Staring blankly can make it seem like you are ignoring them or focusing on something else. Gentle nods or tilts of the head can indicate that you’re understanding their points. In certain circumstances, even a small smile can put people at ease.
At the same time, be cautious. Every person is different and a behavior that one person perceives as calm and understanding may seem sarcastic to another. Use what you know about the individual to guide your actions.
When it is your turn to speak, don’t try to assign blame. While it can be tempting—especially if the other person already did so—don’t insult them or attempt to “win” the argument. These moments are all about mutual understanding, not beating the other person.
Establish Boundaries and Take Breaks
In an ideal world, simply staying calm and empathetic would lead to quick resolutions, but humans are far more complex than that. You are not always going to be able to settle things easily or in one sitting. Remember that your needs and desires are as important as the needs and desires of the person you are disagreeing with.
Sometimes the situation will escalate regardless of your best attempts. Set your own boundaries for what is acceptable in a discussion and what you need to do to keep yourself safe and healthy, both physically and mentally. If one of you starts exhibiting behavior that worries you, walk away. You can tell your conversational partner that you have heard what they are saying but just need to take a break and will be back. This risks agitating certain individuals, so there is no easy way to keep them happy while maintaining your boundaries.
If you need to hit the pause button in the conversation, you may not need to leave the room entirely. Just taking a break from talking for a short while will give both of you time to cool down and refocus on what is important.
Seek Mediation or Professional Support When Needed
Remember, conflict resolution is hard—even more so when feelings are involved. If you are having ongoing issues with someone and can’t seem to work it out alone, reach out to a professional. A third party can see things from a much more neutral viewpoint. Beyond this, professionals will be able to impart various skills and techniques that will allow you to better de-escalate situations in the future.
If you need help with relationship conflict management, contact the experts at Restore Mental Health. Our team of professionals has decades of experience in helping people navigate relationship issues.