Relationships

How to stay calm during a confrontation, according to an expert

Posted by
Aiden Wynn
Posted by
Lauren Geall
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An angry woman

Do you struggle to keep your emotions under control during arguments? We look at the reasons why and offer some tips on how to stay calm next time you’re involved in a confrontation.

Christmas may be a season of love and goodwill, but it can be a particularly stressful time, too – especially when it comes to dealing with friends and family. While spending time with loved ones (whether via Zoom or in-person) can be one of the best parts of the festive season, it can also be the source of a whole load of arguments.

With the background stress of rising coronavirus cases and the Omicron variant overshadowing this year’s festivities and causing tensions to rise, it’s even more likely that you’ll have a couple of disagreements over the next couple of weeks.  

Of course, the best way to handle these kinds of situations is to stay calm and talk things through. But that’s easier said than done, largely thanks to the way our brains work.

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Indeed, as Sarah Rozenthuler, a chartered psychologist and the author of How To Have Meaningful Conversations: 7 Strategies For Talking About What Matters, explains, “Specific threats in a social situation affect our ability to interact productively.” 

She says that these threats, for example when you feel someone is insulting you or leaving you out, simulate similar brain networks to those that are triggered when your primary survival needs are threatened. This activates your limbic system, which houses our emotional reactions and seeks to minimise the perceived threat by avoiding a person or situation, or by attacking back.

This, unfortunately, is an unconscious reaction, and one that is fairly easily triggered as Rozenthuler says that your limbic system “is more tuned to threats than rewards”. As a result, your ability to respond rationally or fairly is inhibited, making it all the more likely you will say or do something you regret.

Anger management: angry woman on laptop
Our limbic system seeks to minimise the perceived threat “by avoiding a person or situation, or by attacking back.”

But there are ways to ensure you don’t let confrontation get the better of you, and acknowledging the stressors that trigger that threat response is one of them.

According to David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute, there are five key social threats that act as potential stressors. These include having your competence undermined, feeling as though you’re being micro-managed, and believing a situation to be unfair. 

So, as Rozenthuler explains, “Recognising these trigger points for what they are – threats to our social standing – helps us to manage how we deal with our ‘fight or flight’ response kicking in.”

What this means is that, by taking note of the things that tip you over the edge, you become more able to take stock of the situation, see it for what it is, and “remind yourself that there is no overt threat to your wellbeing or safety,” says Rozenthuler. 

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She recognises that this is easier said than done, though, and that re-engaging our ‘thinking brain’ when it has been hijacked by our ‘emotional brain’ takes time and practice to get right. 

If you’re a bit lost for where to start, though, you can try creating a brief pause when you find yourself in the midst of a heated conversation. Rozenthuler says: “Taking a couple of deep breaths, counting to ten or getting a glass of water generates a ‘moment of choice’ [that] enables us to consciously choose what to do or say next.”

Put this into practice, and you could be on track to have far more productive conversations with the people you care about, rather than destructive confrontations. As Rozenthuler says: “No matter how provocative or perturbing someone else’s comments or behaviours are, we can learn to manage our triggers.”

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Aiden Wynn

Author

Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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