I didn’t learn to understand or manage my emotions until well into adulthood. So for most of my life, I engaged in a very negative pattern with my parents, friends, girlfriends, and eventual spouse. Some kind of stress, disagreement, or conflict would arise. I would act like a jerk. I would apologize. My apologies would be accepted.
Despite the conflict’s heartache, the pattern was difficult to recognize and even harder to break. Every argument’s negative emotions would enhance every reconciliation’s positive emotions. The argument’s cause would be lost amidst the warm-and-fuzzy feelings, so everyone involved felt comfortable with the status quo.
With some good advice, I eventually recognized the pattern and began trying to change it. I failed miserably many times, but slowly, surely, I learned a more emotionally intelligent approach to disagreements and conflict: breathe, take breaks, communicate assertively, listen, accept, and forgive.
Breathing is essential to regulating and thinking through difficult emotions. The first step to emotional intelligence, therefore, is breathing deeply in the midst of distress or confusion.
Have you ever felt so upset that you became light-headed, dizzy, or off balance? When men encounter a stressful conflict, their blood sometimes rushes from their frontal cortex to their cerebellum. Complex problem solving (and men face few problems as complex as managing emotions) requires a well-oxygenated frontal cortex. A fight-or-flight response demands a well-oxygenated cerebellum. In short, stress can shift the male brain from thinking gear to fighting.
Taking a deep breath mitigates this process. It re-oxygenates the frontal cortex’s problem solving abilities and revs down the cerebellum’s fight-or-flight preparations. It allows you to reorient your focus from arguing to seeking common ground and mutually agreeable solutions.
A breath can provide the time that even an emotional genius needs to empathize with other people. We often think we know exactly why someone did or said something, but we can’t read hearts and minds and so we can never safely presume to know someone else’s intentions. Even long-term spouses frequently misattribute motives to one other—sound familiar? Breathing provides time to think before we speak or (re)act.
More importantly, I’ve learned to take a break from the argument (ideally) as soon as it turns negative. According to John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, when sarcasm, criticism, or contempt enters a discussion, it will end badly 96% of the time. It is almost impossible to hear someone else if you feel under attack. The natural reaction is defensiveness, which usually takes the form of retaliatory sarcasm, criticism, or contempt (again, sound familiar?).
Taking a break is the best, and perhaps the only way, to prevent an argument that hurts everyone and solves nothing. Sometimes, my break lasts only several seconds. I take a couple breaths, ask myself what I’m feeling and why, and put myself in the other person’s shoes. I communicate my emotions and why I (re)acted the way I did, and we work through it.
Other times, I need to remove myself for a more extended time. I learned the hard way, however, that mere removal doesn’t guarantee anything. I often dwelled on the argument, replaying it in my mind, pitying myself, justifying my anger, reciting snappy come-backs. When I returned, I was still more than ready to fight. The break must be mental as well as physical. Think about something else. Do something else. But if you must dwell, then dwell on underlying issues, potential solutions, or mutually agreeable compromises.
Communicate Assertively, not Defensively
I was taught to ignore people and things that upset me, but I’ve learned that ignoring emotions accomplishes as little as yelling and screaming. First, how can the cause of your negative emotions—people or things—ever change if you don’t express your feelings about them? Second, if you hold everything inside, some of it will burst out eventually. Lastly, if you believe you must keep things to yourself, then you also implicitly believe that you aren’t supposed to have negative emotions. Managing emotions becomes even harder under this belief.
It is okay to feel upset or angry. It’s just not okay to express those emotions in damaging ways. After you take a breath, a break, or both, communicate your emotions assertively—not defensively. There is a huge difference between whining, “You were nagging me!” and gently but firmly stating, “I felt under attack.” The former is an attack itself, focused on the other person; the latter focuses on the other person’s effect on you. The former will elicit defensiveness; the latter can inform change.
Like everything in life, assertiveness can be taken too far. It’s also important to think through the why behind your emotions before asserting your hurt feelings. Were you really under attack, or are you defending yourself by redirecting the argument’s attention to the other person (e.g., you were nagging me)? Thinking through the situation enables me to either avoid unproductive, unfair defensiveness or to politely and respectfully state exactly what hurt me and why, leading to productive discussion.
Discussion also requires listening. The other person deserves to be heard, too. No one wants to quietly listen to your diatribe about your hurt feelings. But most people crave dialogue, especially if it results in greater understanding. Greater understanding not only strengthens the relationship but also promotes positive change.
In a heated argument, I can become fixated on myself and my feelings as well as “winning” the debate. Breathing and breaks help me dial back my self-centered competitiveness, but I’ve found asking questions to be even more useful. When I respond with questions instead of statements, I not only give the other person an opportunity to speak but also demonstrate respect for that person’s perspective and thoughts. I learn about the situation through his or her eyes, which helps me work toward a solution or compromise.
Accept and Forgive
Accept that some conflicts will not be resolved immediately—or ever. Accept that reasonable people can disagree. Accept that people can perceive themselves as reasonable when others believe the polar opposite. Most importantly, accept that you can’t force someone else to think like you or to do what you’d like. Nor should you. It’s frustrating in the moment—because they seem unreasonable from your point of view—but accepting someone else’s views is a moral imperative and an essential component of emotional intelligence since it communicates respect and esteem for that person.
This means that you won’t always receive an apology, and that you won’t always observe positive change. If you want to continue the relationship, then you must forgive unconditionally or else you will likely lash out at the person in the future, damaging the relationship even further. So abandon your self-righteous indignation that he or she didn’t see how obviously right you were and then grovel at your feet. Forgive unconditionally, and then watch as the relationship’s air clears and a fresh breeze of positivity blows into it.
Learning emotional intelligence wasn’t easy. It required intensive studying and conscious, determined effort. As I tried to change, my wife picked fights frequently and fiercely. It was tempting to revert, but I came to understand three things: first, she was hurt by my previous behavior and lashing out in her pain; second, she knew what to expect in our crazy cycle and my change threatened her role and identity within it; and third, unconsciously, she was testing my commitment to lasting change.
I stuck with my efforts, and we eventually moved off the crazy cycle and into a more positive pattern of behavior. We still argue, of course, but we practice much more emotional intelligence. I can better manage and express my emotions, resulting in arguments that produce positive change and strengthen our relationship.
Image of couple facing relationship difficulties courtesy of Shutterstock