12 Phrases That Will Defuse Any Argument

Steve Calechman
·6 min read

Conflict has many arenas. It happens at home, the office, the family table. Hell, Zoom call conflict is now a regular thing. Regardless of the setting or the players, the underlying reason for arguments, disagreements, or beefs is usually the same and, if you want to learn how to resolve conflict, you must recognize it.

It’s not tone, body language, or specific words, although they certainly play a part. It’s interpretation. What was said doesn’t make sense to you, and that sets off the cascade. Your brain releases cortisol and you say, “I’m gonna destroy you.” (Fight) or “I’m outta here.” (Flight).

Neither response helps, but we tend to the extremes because of “our inability to engage in conflict,” says Israela Adah Brill-Cass, a conflict resolution professional and ombud at Wesleyan University and Clark University.

But boning up on your conflict resolutions skills is worthwhile, since tension will never go extinct, even in the best relationships. Resolving conflict then starts with recognizing that a problem is in the room and then speaking up with unloaded language. It’s also good to keep one reminder: Nothing is a guarantee, as Brill-Cass advises, because controlling someone else’s behavior still hasn’t been invented yet.

Regardless, it’s smart to have some phrases in your quiver that can aid you in conflict resolution in the workplace, at home, or any other arena. The phrases below, offered by experts, all work to acknowledge feelings, ensure people feel heard, and let them know that you want to assist them with an issue, not brush it under the rug. Keep them in mind the next time tensions boil over. Will they always work? No. But they will show your intent to listen, engage, and make the situation better.

1. “I really appreciate you being willing to discuss this.”

Why it works: This is a good conflict resolution phrase for any relationship, as it acknowledges the step many won’t take: engaging. In non-work situations, you can add, “I want to have a good time with you,” to stress your big-picture goal. “It takes down some of the emotional inflammation,” says Jeffrey Bernstein, psychologist and author of The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens.

2. “Tell me one little thing I can do to help right now.”

Why it works: Mostly for a spouse, maybe a friend, this comes after initially saying, “I can see you’re upset.” Since a person usually gets angrier before calming down, the follow-up is even more important. It brings the situation into the moment and tells the person that you’re not bolting, says Pat Love, relationship expert and author of Five Forces Destroying Your Relationship You Probably Never Heard Of.

3. “Let’s clarify …”

Why it works: With work projects, friction can happen over territory and perceived authority. You want to define protocol, timelines, procedure, and specify vague terms; left on their own, “priority” “later” and “soon,” are up for individual interpretation, then battles. As Brill-Class says, “Clarity makes shit better.”

4. “I’m happy to talk about it, as long as we play cards afterwards.”

Why it works: With families, certain relatives want to “get into it”, partly for the dopamine rush from talking. Mentioning a game acts as the cleansing good time and presents a tacit understanding that nothing will get too out-of-hand. This way, the conversation is no longer the headliner, just a scheduled thing, transforming into, “This is what we do. It’s our ritual,” Love says.

5. “I hear that’s important to you. I’m asking you to consider my perspective.”

Why it works: Often, fights spiral because people believe that they can only win or lose, and no one wants the latter. Saying the above brings in compromise, a necessary component if you want to keep unresolved arguments from festering.

6. “I want us to talk even though things might not get resolved.”

Why it works: “Anxiety creates the need for closure,” Bernstein says. But, as he notes, not every topic can be neatly tied up — something everyone would be better off understanding. By saying this, you’re recognizing that conflict exists and it’s not any omen. “Even if I was married to myself, I’d be in conflict,” Bernstein says.

7. “Oh.”

Why it works: It’s non-committal, but you’re also not ignoring, which is one of the quickest ways to inflame someone. The two-letter sound also kills time to get more cognitive and less emotional. “You can’t have an argument if one person remains calm,” Love says. For the record, an understated “Wow” is a fine alternative.

8. “I bet we can agree on three things.”

Why it works: You can’t choose family, so opposing viewpoints are part of get-togethers. Over time, you listen just to find holes in someone’s argument. This is said in a friendly way, and while you can differ on the solutions, the challenge gets to find common ground. “When in doubt, go deeper,” says Carl Hindy, clinical psychologist in Newmarket, New Hampshire.

9. “That was your experience, not mine, and I can’t say it was wrong.”

Why it works: Most family arguments never leave the sandbox: wanting attention, wanting affection, not sharing, all wrapped in birth order. You’re acknowledging that you can grow up in the same place and hold different, “true” perspectives. You’re validating, mostly likely your brother, and possibly stopping the lobbying effort to feel differently, Bernstein says.

10. “I can do better.”

Why it works: Said post-conflict with your spouse, friend, and sometimes relative, it’s doing what no one wants to do: take the first step. More proactive than, “I screwed up,” you’re admitting your role, and showing remorse is usually met with the same. “Then you become two reasonable people,” Love says.

11. “I feel something is weird. I just want to talk about it. Would now be okay?”

Why it works: With a friend, colleague, really anyone, you’re frontloading your intent to problem-solve, and you’re taking the overlooked step of asking if the time is right. You can’t wait too long or jump in too soon, but you do have to act. “Unresolved conflict doesn’t go away. It festers,” Brill-Cass says.

12. “You’ve talked about this before, but I want to finally understand it.”

Why this works: You want to dismiss your relative’s go-to story, but, at root is the desire to be heard. This announces that you want to listen, but then you have to listen, not to be convinced. This means just let the person talk, which might be all that’s needed to retire the tale. “To be understood is maybe the most powerful thing in life,” Hindy says.

And that’s the crux of interactions. You want to think, “What’s your goal?” You could look to come out on top, but, “If you win the argument, you’ve lost,” Hindy says. Or you could decide to make someone feel good and strengthen the relationship. “You can redefine winning and losing,” he says. “That’s winning.”

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