One of the most important things in an argument with someone you care about is not letting it escalate, or spiral into other territories. Easier said than done when emotions are involved, but there are some specific language techniques that can help get you to a better place. We spoke to Gemma Hayes, who has worked in various organisations helping homeless people in Sydney and Melbourne, and has a few tips.
Top image by Itan1409
In her time dealing with the street community, Hayes has had to deal with more than her fair share of verbal abuse. She’s trained to make sure it stays verbal, and ideally subsides altogether. In the worst cases, there’s nothing you can do — reconciliation does require both parties to want it. But as long as you’re both coming from a good place, these tips should help.
Repeat What They Say Back To Them
The act of repeating what they say to you has many benefits. Firstly, they’ll know for sure you’re listening to them. It actually helps to be as accurate as possible, without changing their words or sentiment, so they know you’re not trying to spin it. It might seem like a transparent “managing” of an angry person, but at least they know you’re genuinely trying.
This repetition also hammers it into your own head what they want, and gives you space to verbalise what you think they’re feeling, and hopefully get to the core of the matter. This is “listening to them” time. If they’re upset, you’ll probably need to do this before you get your say in, and by that point they will feel like their viewpoint is well and truly understood.
Another step in showing them you understand (or at least are trying) is identifying their feelings. “I can see you’re angry.” Then add in why. “You’re feeling frustration because you really wanted some alone time.” It’s a great opportunity for them to correct you, if what they’re feeling is slightly different, such as pensiveness instead of defensiveness.
“When you do ____, I feel ____.”
This sentence is very important, because it plainly gets across what you’re feeling without assigning blame. Notice the sentence isn’t “You make me feel angry.” Instead, you might say “When you come home late, I feel neglected.” Or, “When you wear those pants, I feel like you don’t care about me enough to dress up.”
Neither party is to blame, it’s just a fact. And starting from that fact, you can work towards figuring out how to make you not feel that way anymore. It might be something as simple as them yelling at you. Perhaps they’re being unreasonable but they just don’t get why. Perhaps you’re being unreasonable but you can’t help how you feel. And certainly it’s worth betting to the bottom of why those feelings are there. But the beauty of this sentence is that none of that really matters — if both parties care, the priority will be stopping uncomfortable feelings.
“Empathy is a listening skill in itself,” says Hayes. “It’s the difference between thinking ‘Why is this person yelling at me, they’re taking out their stuff on me!” and “Why is this person yelling at me, I wonder what’s wrong with them?”
Body Language And Open Questions
Pay attention to your body language. Make sure you’re not displaying hostile or defensive positions, like having your arms crossed. Likewise, it’s probably a good idea to not display weak positions like using one hand to grasp your other wrist. You can find a more thorough guide on body language here.
“Hopefully I can get them to a point where we’re sitting down,” says Hayes. “From there, I can ask them open questions, even if it’s just ‘what’s wrong?’, or ‘what’s really going on?'”