How to Dissolve an Argument Like A Pro (Without Raising Your Voice)

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Why is it that we can run through multiple scenarios in our heads to provide perfectly reasonable and calm directives to fellow employees, direct reports, or even our own kids, yet when we are in front of a person who is visibly getting upset, we lose our cool and raise our voice?

It happens to be science….and a vicious social cycle.

Take the following parenting scenario as an example:

Parent: Sorry, Charlie, you can’t have the toy right now.

Charlie: But I really want it now.

Parent: You can play with it later.

Charlie: I WANT IT NOW!

Parent (yelling now): I SAID NO, AND THAT IS ENOUGH!!

Charlie: *cue the waterworks*

In that moment, we have two behaviors occurring, each interacting in a vicious social cycle.  Charlie’s yelling triggers the parent’s yelling, and as soon as the parent’s yelling happens, Charlie’s behavior immediately changes.  In that immediate behavior change, the parent’s behavior has effectively removed Charlie’s yelling from the present environment, and Charlie stopped arguing.  In this vicious social cycle, Charlie’s behavior decreases in the moment, and the parent’s behavior in the future is more likely to increase.  By decreasing Charlie’s yelling, the parent’s yelling is reinforced, and will continue in the future (For more information on this type of reinforcement, known as “negative reinforcement,” and operant conditioning see the following book: The Behavior of Organisms*, Skinner, 1938) ).

Take another example that is a scenario from the workplace:

Direct Report: I’d really like to talk to you about some issues I’ve been having with the project.

Manager/Supervisor: Sure, Tom, tell me what is going on?

Direct Report: I do not feel I have the support I need from management for resources needed to complete the project.

Manager/Supervisor (immediately defensive): Why not?!  We gave you three weeks to work on the project, and approved discretionary spending to get it done.  This is due in two days and you are telling me this now?!

Direct Report (raising voice): THIS IS NOT MY FAULT.  I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THIS THING FOR 60-80 HOURS A WEEK THE LAST TWO WEEKS AND I JUST CAN’T DO IT ANYMORE!

Manager/Supervisor (yelling): THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.  EITHER COMPLETE THE PROJECT, OR YOU CAN SEE YOURSELF OUT OF THIS OFFICE!

Direct Report: *storms out of the office*

Again, two behaviors are interacting!  The Direct Report is coming to the Manager with a problem, setting up for a stressful situation, and the Manager/Supervisor appears to feel attacked.  The Manager raises their voice, yells at the direct report, and there is an immediate change in behavior with the direct report storming out of the office.  This likely increases the manager’s behavior of yelling at direct reports in the future because of this experience, and again, his behavior is reinforced.

In either of these scenarios, has Charlie or Tom, the direct report, learned anything?  No.   The parent and manager, however; have “learned” that in the future, when presented with an aversive condition (child yelling or direct report complaining), they just need to yell, and that aversive condition will decrease.

So what can we do instead?  My suggestion is to keep calm, and shape development.

How do we do this?

First, when Charlie starts to yell, the parent can calmly provide him with an alternative, effectively teaching him to “accept no.”  Here is the example:

Parent: Sorry, Charlie, you can’t have the toy right now.

Charlie: But I really want it now.

Parent: You can play with it later.

Charlie: I WANT IT NOW!

Parent (calmly): Charlie, how about instead of the toy, we do _______ instead?

Hopefully, Charlie agrees.  If not, the parent may have to provide a few more alternatives than the original.

Here’s an example for the workplace:

Direct Report: I’d really like to talk to you about some issues I’ve been having with the project.

Manager/Supervisor: Sure, Tom, tell me what is going on?

Direct Report: I do not feel I have the support I need from management for resources to complete the project.

Manager/Supervisor (calmly): I see.  Why do you feel like you need more support and resources?

Direct Report (getting upset): I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THIS THING FOR 60-80 HOURS A WEEK THE LAST TWO WEEKS AND I JUST CAN’T DO IT ANYMORE!

Manager/Supervisor (calmly): Ok, I understand that is frustrating.  How can we problem solve this together so we can complete the project, and you do not feel so burned out?

Direct Report (calmly):  Well….(continues problem solving with manager)

Obviously, it is not always this simple, and sometimes it takes perseverance for the parent and manager to maintain a calm voice in the discussion.  However, by sticking to this strategy, and keeping calm, we can shape the development of those around us as well as ourselves.

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