How to Argue (Respectfully)

Our resident psychiatrist gives us tips on keeping cool in the heat of the moment.

In the heat of the moment, one of the worst things to do is what people normally do—immerse themselves in their emotions and focus on their hurt. This response is like putting gasoline on a fire. It fuels the flame by keeping angry and aggressive thoughts front and center, making it more likely you will say something you later regret.

The study “Flies on the Wall Are Less Aggressive,” by visiting assistant professor of psychology at Ohio University Dominik Mischkowski, et al., offers a simple strategy to cool these hot emotions. When someone upsets you, try to pretend you are a fly on the wall and viewing the situation from a distance. This is known as self-distancing. The process of mentally stepping back from an experience and viewing it as separate from the self and through the eyes of an outside observer can help you stay in control. In one study, college students were paired with a partner who intentionally provoked and berated them with comments like “Look, this is the third time I have to say this! Can’t you follow directions?” in an impatient and obnoxious tone. The students who had been told to adopt a self-distanced perspective were less quick to get angry and responded less aggressively than those who immersed themselves in their feelings.

When you are psychologically distanced from a situation, you gain perspective. The long line at the grocery store might feel a little less personal. You are more likely to consider the possibility that the driver who cut you off is late to pick up her child from day care and not just a jerk or that a disagreeable colleague is having a tough time at home and not just lazy. Potentially explosive interactions with friends, family, partners, and even strangers are less likely to blow up when you picture the moment from afar. Greater distance results in less drama.

This story originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Marie Claire.