5 Conversation Killers

Robert Taibbi

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Some arguments are arguments at the start. One person is angry, in your face, waving their hands, and it’s off and running. For most, however, an argument starts maybe as a sarcastic comment or even a rational conversation, but then things start to heat up. Once it does, it’s hard to cool down. 

Here are some of the most common ways conversations get derailed:

1. Arguing about whose reality is right

"It was Tuesday!" "No, it was Wednesday!"

Playing courtroom, you and the person with whom you're arguing may get into the weeds of history and memory. This is understandable. When you get emotional, you get tunnel vision: your instincts are to make your point, and so you stack up evidence to do exactly that, pulling out all the stops to make your case. Somehow, if you get the facts right, the other person will see the light, calm down, and agree.

The problem: Once an argument gets emotional, your rational brain shuts down. The other person can’t process the facts. The problem is the emotion, and you can’t fix feelings with facts. You need to fix emotions by talking about emotions.

The solution: Stop talking about facts, and focus on the emotions. Explain why you are upset, and listen to help the other person calm down.

2. Arguing over who has the problem  

This is gaslighting on a micro-scale. "You don’t care!" "You’re too sensitive!"

The struggle isn’t about facts but who is at fault, who is really the one with the problem, convincing the other person it’s their personality traits that are the cause.

The problem: Like whose reality is right, this quickly gets into exchanging barbs, insults, dragging up the past. 

The solution: Stop it. You’re just fueling the fire. There's nothing more to do than that.

3. Focusing on changing the other person

Most couples tend to think: "My problem is what my partner is doing, and if I can get them to change, I’ll feel better." So, the focus is on pushing the other to change—you need to control your anger, you need to stop being a slob; you need to stop babying the kids; you need to step up as a parent.

The problem: While the concerns are often valid—the other person does need to control their temper or maybe to be a more active parent—all this gets lost in the heat of the argument. What the other person only hears and feels is criticism and pressure.

The solution: Back off the pressure and try to have a rational conversation about what you need from the other person when things are calmer.

4. Confusing means and ends

You both agree there is a problem—that you are spending too much money, that the kids are going to bed too late—but you get into the weeds of how to solve the problem. Should you have a tighter budget or get second jobs? Tell the kids they need to go to bed earlier or ease into it by changing the bedtime routine?

The problem: You push hard and get entangled in your solution, losing sight of the goal itself.

The solution: Stay focused on the ultimate goal—reducing money worries, finding a win-win plan to get the kids to bed. Or take it one step further and define the purpose and problem beyond that—having more money so we get out of debt, or get the kids to bed earlier so we have more time as a couple in the evenings. Decide what you ultimately want to gain.

5. Getting into a power struggle

All the above can quickly lead to a power struggle where both partners dig in. But for some couples, any discussion can quickly turn into a power struggle where each needs to get their way, needs to come out on top, is not going to be told what to do. It becomes a standoff, a blink contest.

The problem: This is the most dangerous of all, a fight to the death regardless of the issue, with winning at all costs as the priority.

The solution: Realize when the argument is getting to that point and call a truce. It is not about giving in, but about not going down a destructive path.

What these all have in common

  • Realize when the argument is going nowhere. You can tell because you push harder, get more emotional, dig in, say hurtful things you don’t mean.
  • Take a break. Call a halt by saying that you need to stop and cool off but that you will come back when you have calmed down. This is about emotional responsibility without cutting the other person off.
  • Circle back and solve the problem. Once you both are calm, have an adult conversation about both the issue and finding a solution and about the conversation—about how we can avoid these types of arguments in the future.Some arguments are arguments at the start. One person is angry, in your face, waving their hands, and it’s off and running. For most, however, an argument starts maybe as a sarcastic comment or even a rational conversation, but then things start to heat up. Once it does, it’s hard to cool down. 

Here are some of the most common ways conversations get derailed:

1. Arguing about whose reality is right

"It was Tuesday!" "No, it was Wednesday!"

Playing courtroom, you and the person with whom you're arguing may get into the weeds of history and memory. This is understandable. When you get emotional, you get tunnel vision: your instincts are to make your point, and so you stack up evidence to do exactly that, pulling out all the stops to make your case. Somehow, if you get the facts right, the other person will see the light, calm down, and agree.

The problem: Once an argument gets emotional, your rational brain shuts down. The other person can’t process the facts. The problem is the emotion, and you can’t fix feelings with facts. You need to fix emotions by talking about emotions.

The solution: Stop talking about facts, and focus on the emotions. Explain why you are upset, and listen to help the other person calm down.

2. Arguing over who has the problem  

This is gaslighting on a micro-scale. "You don’t care!" "You’re too sensitive!"

The struggle isn’t about facts but who is at fault, who is really the one with the problem, convincing the other person it’s their personality traits that are the cause.

The problem: Like whose reality is right, this quickly gets into exchanging barbs, insults, dragging up the past. 

The solution: Stop it. You’re just fueling the fire. There's nothing more to do than that.

3. Focusing on changing the other person

Most couples tend to think: "My problem is what my partner is doing, and if I can get them to change, I’ll feel better." So, the focus is on pushing the other to change—you need to control your anger, you need to stop being a slob; you need to stop babying the kids; you need to step up as a parent.

The problem: While the concerns are often valid—the other person does need to control their temper or maybe to be a more active parent—all this gets lost in the heat of the argument. What the other person only hears and feels is criticism and pressure.

The solution: Back off the pressure and try to have a rational conversation about what you need from the other person when things are calmer.

4. Confusing means and ends

You both agree there is a problem—that you are spending too much money, that the kids are going to bed too late—but you get into the weeds of how to solve the problem. Should you have a tighter budget or get second jobs? Tell the kids they need to go to bed earlier or ease into it by changing the bedtime routine?

The problem: You push hard and get entangled in your solution, losing sight of the goal itself.

The solution: Stay focused on the ultimate goal—reducing money worries, finding a win-win plan to get the kids to bed. Or take it one step further and define the purpose and problem beyond that—having more money so we get out of debt, or get the kids to bed earlier so we have more time as a couple in the evenings. Decide what you ultimately want to gain.

5. Getting into a power struggle

All the above can quickly lead to a power struggle where both partners dig in. But for some couples, any discussion can quickly turn into a power struggle where each needs to get their way, needs to come out on top, is not going to be told what to do. It becomes a standoff, a blink contest.

The problem: This is the most dangerous of all, a fight to the death regardless of the issue, with winning at all costs as the priority.

The solution: Realize when the argument is getting to that point and call a truce. It is not about giving in, but about not going down a destructive path.

What these all have in common

  • Realize when the argument is going nowhere. You can tell because you push harder, get more emotional, dig in, say hurtful things you don’t mean.
  • Take a break. Call a halt by saying that you need to stop and cool off but that you will come back when you have calmed down. This is about emotional responsibility without cutting the other person off.
  • Circle back and solve the problem. Once you both are calm, have an adult conversation about both the issue and finding a solution and about the conversation—about how we can avoid these types of arguments in the future.

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In my 45+ years of clinical practice, I've always found myself wondering: Where do individuals, couples, families get stuck running their lives, what do they struggle to do that gets in the way of their solving their own problems. Sometimes it is about communication skills, sometimes struggling with regulating emotions, sometimes being triggered by old wounds from the past. My writing focuses on concrete behavior -- what you can do to break old patterns, apply positive skills, and override those stuckpoints in your life.

Charlottesville, VA
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