Heated discussions have a way of turning our brain to mush.
We’ve all had those moments—someone accuses us of something and we freeze. Fifteen minutes after the conversation ends, we think of the perfect response.
Why is that?
One reason is that our brains and bodies behave differently when we’re angry. Emotions influence our ability to think when we’re in the middle of an argument. It’s a normal response rooted in our biology.
But it’s important to remember that emotions are neither good nor bad.
They just are.
They are our body’s ‘temperature reader’ in that they tell us when we think something is going well or not so well.
It’s how we respond to and deal with our emotions that can have negative or positive consequences.
Once we begin to understand the role of emotions in communication, it ‘s much easier to identify our emotions during a conversation. Though we can’t change emotions. We can listen to them. We can lessen their negative impacts.
In heated discussions, one emotion that often crops up is anger.
Anger is our body’s response to a threat—either real or perceived. Like all emotions, anger by itself is neither good nor bad. It’s simply a response to a threat.
This threat is rooted in fear and causes us to experience a flight-fight-freeze response. In the flight-fight-freeze response we can feel the impacts in our bodies. Our heart rates rise; our breathing gets shallow. As our bodies start taking over, our brain starts to slow down its ability to think logically. It goes into ‘react’ mode.
For our hunter-gatherer ancestors the fear of potential threat, and the flight-or-flight response, was an important survival instinct that prevented harm. This can still be true today. When we need to react quickly, anger can help us. Anger also makes us aware when something or someone is important to us.
So how do we deal with our anger and still communicate effectively when we are in the middle of a heated discussion?
Action #1—Take a Time Out
A time out is a particularly important strategy when you are in the middle of the fight-flight-freeze mode.
In this mode it’s important to remove yourself from the situation. This allows your body’s systems time and space to steady out.
Move to a different room if possible.
It’s also important to communicate what you are doing and why.
You can say, “I need to gather my thoughts. I am really angry and I can’t talk calmly about this right now. I need to take a time out.”
When you are confronting an angry person, it’s important to address them in simple, direct statements. You can suggest that you both take a time out.
A ‘time out’ might look differently to everyone. You might not have loads of time in your day to take a breather. But it’s important to take even a few minutes to yourself to let your body return to normal.
For instance, a long bath to de-stress might not be an option, but five minutes alone in the bathroom to collect your thoughts can be.
Action #2—Observe Emotions
We generally have two reactions to our emotions—we either obey them or ignore them. It’s important to remember that there is a third option available—to observe them and listen to what they are telling us.
Evaluation is so important is because emotions can be very misleading. Because we experience emotion in our body, emotions also impact our thinking in that if we feel something is true, then it is true. We think: “If I feel it, it must be true.”
Emotions can convey truth, but they just as often have a tendency to mask the truth.
We can recognize these untrue statements most commonly when we use three words: should, always, and never.
For instance, a supervisor at work might confidently state, “That guy never finishes his reports on time.” But is that really true? Think of instances where this might not be the case.
It’s also important to examine our own motivations.
Ask yourself: Why you feel the way that you do? What is worrying you? What are you afraid will happen?
In the previous example, the supervisor might be concerned that her employee’s actions will reflect poorly on her and she won’t get that raise she was hoping for.
Action #3—Empathize Don’t Excuse
Taking time to observe and listen to your emotions isn’t easy. Walking away from a heated conversation for a time out can be difficult.
Be aware of excuses that can undermine personal responsibility.
Excuses such as, “It was really no big deal,” or, “He was the one who made me feel that way. He should be the one to go away and think about what he did,” tend to send the problem underground and undermine a proactive approach to problem-solving.
The fact is it takes discipline to listen to emotional warning signs.
This discipline doesn’t happen overnight—it might take a few tries before you heed what your body is telling you. The important thing is you return to your intention of taking personal responsibility when you lose your cool. Taking personal responsibility means not minimizing destructive behaviour.
Empathy for yourself is being mindful of your inner thoughts and acknowledging that you are on a learning journey.
It takes courage to acknowledge that you need a time out, and to confront your emotions. Overcoming the natural obey-ignore response is going to take time.
The important thing is that you are moving from a place of constant reaction to one oriented towards a deeper self-awareness and constructive action.