Honestly, getting into an argument isn't fun for anyone. But if you're sensitive, even a tiny fight with a friend can feel like the end of the world. And learning how to de-escalate an argument when you're prone to serious hurt feelings is no easy task. Luckily, mental health professionals are used to this, and they have some fantastic tricks up their sleeves that will leave you a little bit more resilient next time.
When you're sensitive, fights are really scary territory. "Sensitive people tend to approach arguments with a high level of emotional intensity, especially anxiety and defensiveness," Chelsea Hudson, LCPC, Founder & Licensed Therapist at Cityscape Counseling, P.C, tells Bustle. "For a sensitive person, arguments are often their worst nightmares because conflict is perceived by their nervous system as overly threatening." And bouncing back from conflict can be especially hard if you tend to take things in the heat of the moment to heart.
The good news is that there are a ton of tricks for conflict de-escalation that work even for the most sensitive of souls. Learning to de-escalate conflicts does three great things, according to Hudson; it enhances connection by increasing respect, it boosts confidence by building healthy assertiveness, and it increases that chances of a good solution by ensuring a balanced perspective. Who wouldn't want that?
Here are 10 ways to de-escalate an argument, even if you're a sensitive person, according to experts.
1. Remember To Validate The Other Person's Experience
If you're sensitive, you know that feelings are a major component to this whole situation. With that in mind, try to keep an eye on how the other person is feeling too. And even when you disagree with them, it's helpful if you do this by never invalidating their feelings.
"Start the conflict by validating the other person's feelings or praising them with something positive," Hudson says. "Validation always lowers a person's defenses and will increase the likelihood that they'll be open to hearing you because they'll be less likely to be caught up in their own thoughts trying to construct a defense. You could start the conversation by saying 'I really appreciate how willing and open you are to taking time out of your busy day to have this discussion with me.'" Even though this step happens at the beginning of an argument, it can help bring the other person's emotions back down to a healthier place. From there, you two can explore what you need to.
2. Learn Those "I" Statements
This tip is important for everyone to use, but it's especially crucial if you're sensitive and have a tendency to get reactive.
"Become familiar with saying 'I feel….' instead of 'you make me feel.'" Hudson says. It will help talk you down and get in touch with your feelings, while avoiding riling the other person up with blame.
"While they are a common active listening technique, 'I' statements work, because they communicate to others that you are listening, and they help you, the sensitive person, summarize your thoughts before responding," Dr. Ili Rivera Walter, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. No one wants a messy fight, and "I" statements help clean things up a bit.
3. Learn Non-Verbal Cues
If you're sensitive, there's a good chance you might get your feelings hurt easily by tone of voice, as much as sharp words. So, experts suggest, take that instinct and use it on yourself.
"Watch your body language and voice tone: non-verbals communicate more powerfully than verbals do," Hudson says. "If your body language and tone don’t match your words, you will appear insincere. Use a quiet, gentle tone, and relaxed posture ... Relaxing your posture can also signal to your brain to calm your emotions." Plus, once you learn to carry yourself this way, it's possible the person you're arguing with will mirror it too. It's harder to yell at someone, after all, who isn't yelling back.
4. Stick To Facts
If you're sensitive, there's a chance you also might have a tendency towards hyperbole. And while this personality trait can make you fun at parties, it can make your fights much, much worse. So learn to keep your fights fact-based.
"Stick to the facts and avoid extreme phrases such as 'you always' or 'you never,'" Hudson says. "If you stick to the facts and don't exaggerate your position, then there's nothing for the other party to argue against ... If you say 'you never help me clean the house,' your partner may say 'yes I do, I took out the trash two weeks ago.' But if you instead say 'in the past week, I have taken out the trash every night,' if this is a fact, your partner can't argue against this." This skill will not only de-escalate particularly volatile moments of an argument, but also keep fights from derailing into whole other subjects altogether.
5. Use Your Breath As An Anchor
When emotions are running particularly out of control, you can use your body to trick yourself back into a bit of a de-escalated state.
"Use [your] breath as an anchor to help regulate [your] emotions and stay present during an argument ... Throughout the argument, if you notice your emotions rising, take a few deep breaths, really paying attention to the air filling your lungs, watching your chest falling and rising," Hudson says. This technique is a physical way to access the clarity you need for a bunch of other de-escalation techniques.
Once your breath is regulated, do your best to keep your strategy on course. "Stay quiet and calm in your tone and demeanor. Recognize that the strong emotions are often fear, confusion or misunderstanding on the part of the other person," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show tells Bustle. And breathe.
6. Uncover What's Beneath Your Anger
If all you feel is anger, not clear thoughts or even empathy, it can be hard to figure out where to go next in an argument. But once you reach this point, experts suggest, it means it's an important time to check in on yourself.
"Learn what's underneath your anger. (It's usually a combination of fear, shame, sadness, or hurt.) When you know how you feel, you're more likely to communicate it clearly and assertively," Sara Stanizai, a licensed psychotherapist and the owner of Prospect Therapy, tells Bustle. Once you've figured out what's going on underneath all the torrential emotions, you can strategize what's best for you in terms of ending the fight.
7. Figure Out What You Need And Voice It
Once you've found the root of the anger, the next step is knowing what you need to make the anger go away. It's kind of like the difference between protesting something for the sake of protesting it, or protesting it and adding a potential solution.
This is especially critical, because often fights don't work this way, and that can lead to confusion. "Voice what you need rather than voicing what you don't need. People respond better when you're asking them for something instead of asking them to stop doing something else," Stanizai says. So find a way to re-frame your concerns, and see how they react then.
8. Ask The Other Person Questions
While a lot of de-escalating is about figuring out what you need, a big part of it is making sure that you understand the other person's needs as well. And this won't happen unless you listen to them, and ask questions when you're confused.
"Instead of absorbing all the negative emotions — ask the person what exactly they are angry about," Dr. Klapow says. "Move the conversation from feeling the motions to understanding the facts. This will dial back the strong emotions and take them off of the sensitive person." To do this, however, be careful that you're asking the right kind of questions, and the right way.
"Ask clarifying, open-ended questions. Open ended questions begin with 'how, when, why, tell me more about, help me understand,'" Dr. Danielle Forshee, doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, tells Bustle. This trick will keep you from making assumptions or inadvertently hurting the person's feelings more, instead of less.
9. Summarize What They Say Back To Them
If you still can't figure out what exactly the person you're fighting with wants (or why on earth they would want it), you can try acting as a non-Keegan-Michael Key "anger translator." Just take in what they say, and repeat it back to them as you understand it.
"Summarizing what an angry person says back to them will help that person feel like you heard them, validated them, and understood what they said," Dr. Forshee says. "This is a natural de-escalation tactic. Summarizing back to the person doesn’t mean you agree with them." Plus, if there was a miscue, or they perhaps didn't actually mean what they said, this is an opportunity to find out. So it's a great little skill to have all-around.
10. Take A Break If You Need It
Everyone's heard people say "don't go to bed angry," but that attitude doesn't have to mean fighting forever, even when you can't take it any more or it's no longer productive. "[If] you need a break to collect yourself and/or your thoughts, take break," Julie Williamson, therapist at Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis, LLC, tells Bustle. "Let the person know that this conversation is important to you, and that you need to collect your thoughts. Be sure to schedule a time to return to the conversation later to resolve the argument."
This doesn't mean you have to go full Marshall and Lily and pause your fights when they hurt too much, but it does mean that you have the capacity to do things in a way that works best for you. "Buy yourself some time by saying 'I need some time to think about this,' or 'I'm not ready to talk about this right now.' That can give you some headspace to get clear and not feel overwhelmed by others' reactions or emotions," Stanizai says. Just make sure you actually come back to it later, or else things will get messy all over again.
If you're sensitive, you might hate fights, but no one can avoid them altogether. So it's critical to find ways to de-escalate them in a manner that's effective, but not overly emotional. Luckily, these tips and tricks are extremely useful, and might make things easier for you in the long run. Better communication skills, and fewer hurt feelings. Who wouldn't want that?