How and Why You Should De-Escalate an Argument

Sometimes winning is still losing…

When I was in school, I spent a couple years on the debate team. When you are on the debate team, you have to learn how to dissect an argument and break it down in a way that pokes holes in the theory. You have to research both sides to know what your opponents position is going to be to be able to respond. And, most of all you have to be respectful and composed in your demeanor.

This is not how arguments happen in the real world. While I loved debating, I abhor arguing.

To me, arguments don’t feel productive. They seem like emotional outbursts, shutting down and opportunities to shame, blame and transfer negative feelings to another person.

However, they can be valuable in a relationship by unearthing hidden emotions, resentments and get to the heart of a matter, but it requires both parties to be consciously focused on resolution instead of trying to win at all costs.

I believe social media and reality television has made it popular to either watch or encourage people to continue to escalate an argument until it reaches the stage of physical violence or emotionally violent confrontation. The people around don’t attempt to dampen the energy, but instead participate in raising the stakes between the two people until so much emotion is built up that it explodes. And, we have come to accept this among all ages from children to elderly.

But, that’s not how an argument should be conducted and nor is healthy.

What is De-Escalation?

According to the dictionary, de-escalation is the reduction of the intensity of a conflict or potentially violent situation.

It’s basically putting water on the fire instead of gasoline. When you notice someone is getting more emotionally riled up, instead of matching their intensity, you become the calming force in the situation. You become the one committed to a resolution rather than dominance. You try to find a way for both people to walk away unharmed, heard and feeling as though the argument was worth the moment. In essence, you figure out why you are fighting in the first place.

Exhausting someone in argument is not the same as convincing him     

Tim Kreider

How to De-Escalate a Situation?

First, recognize the signs that an argument is escalating:

  • Clenching fights and/or tightening of their jaw.
  • Sudden change in body language or tone.
  • Pacing or fidgeting.
  • Reduction in eye contact.
  • Yelling, bullying or expressing defiance.

It may be difficult not to feel defensive or to mirror their behavior when you see these cues. Your own adrenaline or “fight of flight” may kick in as a response to someone reacting aggressively towards you. But, this is where awareness plays a huge part. You must override biological nature and choose to be the mediator.


If you feel yourself getting emotionally wrapped up in the argument, you need to take deep breaths to regain your composure. Often, when we are angry, we tend to hold our breath. Breathing deeply will help you regulate your emotions.

Validate the other person’s experience

Validation doesn’t mean you agree, it means you understand. Maybe you can understand why the situation would make them angry. Maybe you can identify with feeling unheard in the situation. Or, maybe you understand how you may have hurt their feelings. But, validation can automatically lower their defenses and makes them more likely to be open to hearing your side. They will be less likely to be constructing their defense and more actively engaged in a discussion.

Say “I” instead of “You”

Resist the urge to exaggerate and use language that places the blame solely on the other person. Telling someone they hurt you will naturally raise their defenses. No one wants to be perceived as if they set out to harm another person. They will look for the reasons why your statement is incorrect and that is how the argument will proceed.

Instead of saying, “You’re not listening to me“, you can say, “I feel unheard.” Then, you are not accusing them of creating the feeling, but make them aware that the feeling may be a result of their behavior they weren’t intending.

Avoid Always and Never

Don’t accuse your person of “always doing something” or “never doing something“. These are not only accusatory, but it’s not factual and a gross exaggeration. Stick to the facts.

Let’s say your problem is they used to do more things with you. So, within the argument, you say, “You never want to go anywhere.

This is going to spark their defense and they are going to point out all the times that they have done something they didn’t want to do just to make you happy. Instead, what you should say is, “I feel like we used to do things together and I have noticed in the past month that when I ask you to go to things with me that your response is no.” And, explain the feeling that creates within you without accusing them of causing the feeling.

Be aware of your Body Language and Facial Expressions

For me, nothing gets under my skin more than when I am expressing my feelings and they are met with an eye-roll, sigh of exasperation or folded arms. Those are all defensive and dismissive stances to me.

Be aware that your body language isn’t communicating to the other person that you don’t care about what they have to say. They will pick on this cue subconsciously and it will spur them to either fight harder or mirror your contempt.

Figure Out What’s Beneath your Anger and What you Need

If you are the angry one, figure out what is beneath your anger. Anger is a bodyguard for other emotions. Generally, fear, sadness, shame or hurt has been triggered and anger steps in the fight against the perceived attack. Figure out what the trigger was and also what would make you feel better. You may think you just want the other person to feel as bad as you do, but that is not actually what is going to make you feel better. What will make you feel better is to deal with the healing the wound that has been triggered.

You can’t make the other person responsible. You will have to deal with yourself if you want to stop feeling what you are feeling.

For example, perhaps, the person not coming with you makes you feel abandoned and alone. You have to communicate that feeling to them. They may not have meant to make you feel that way, but they just are busy with something else or don’t want to attend the same events. You have to deal with your feelings of abandonment. But, maybe you also compromise with your partner that they will attend one or two events with you to make you feel like they care.

If they are the angry one, ask questions and try to figure out what is really going on beneath the surface. They may not know why they are really mad or feeling triggered. Instead of taking the stance that they are irrational, be curious about what is really going on within them. You may be able to discover something about them that you didn’t originally know. And, figure out what you can do to help them feel more comfortable. It doesn’t mean that you are responsible, but maybe you can tweak your behavior.

The Bottom Line is Arguing is Necessary

It’s not whether you argue or not, but how you do it and what is the goal of the argument. It can either damage relationships or enhance relationships. You have to choose the outcome in the moment. You do that by either allowing it to escalate out of control and unchecked or to de-escalate and get to the root of the problem.

That’s the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.

Christopher Buckley

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