Held Hostage by Anger: 6 Steps to STOP an Argument

By Tamara Slocum
March 19, 2019

There’s nothing worse than getting into the same argument, again and again and again. Amirite? The sheer repetition is enough to drive one MAD. And sadly, that tends to happen quite a bit in marriage. When we get really upset, we can go from zero to 60 in two seconds flat. We don’t want to fight. We don’t want to be angry. But WE ARE LIVID. And ya know what? We have every right to be! But.

Yes, there’s a but.

But… do you know what happens to our brain when we get angry—besides the imaginary cartoon-like smoke emanating from our ears, presumably from our brain that’s on fire? Let’s take a quick trip back to high school A&P:

• Our brain is the center of logic and emotions. (Duh.)

• The limbic system, more specifically the amygdala, processes emotions such as fear, anger and the “fight or flight” reflex.

• The prefrontal cortex controls judgment, logic and thinking.

Guess what happens when our amygdala is firing on all cylinders? The prefrontal cortex STOPS working at optimum levels. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol rush through our body, causing us to turn into something close to the incredible Hulk (you won’t like me when I’m angry!) Our body is physically preparing for “fight or flight” from the perceived threat. This makes us hyper-focused on our goal of survival (ya know, being “right”), which makes it next to impossible to actually understand or even hear what other people are saying.  Think of a child’s teeter-totter on the playground with emotions on one side and rational thinking on the other side: when emotions go up, rational thinking goes down.

Well, shoot. That makes sense. But what in the world can we do about it? Just… never get mad? That seems unrealistic. Because it is. Honestly, we can ask our spouse to help. Here’s how:

How Your Spouse Can Help Defuse Your Anger

Imagine for a moment that your anger is a dark shadowy figure with red eyes that is holding you hostage from the kitchen (because all the arguments seem to happen in the kitchen)… You need HELP. Ask your spouse to use this strategy for handling you when you are being held hostage by your anger:

How would an FBI Hostage Negotiator handle the situation?

They would use the Behavioral Change Stairway Model. It is 5 tried-and-true steps to get someone else to see your point of view and change what they’re doing. These steps are:

  1. Active Listening—Listen to their side and let them know it.
  2. Empathy—You understand where they’re coming from and what they are feeling.
  3. Rapport—What they feel in return from your empathy; they start trusting you.
  4. Influence—Working on problem-solving and recommending a course of action.
  5. Behavioral Change—They act — positively.

Usually in a typical argument, us untrained common folk try to immediately fix the problem by starting from #4 – Influence… but that won’t work. (It might work if the angry spouse’s prefrontal cortex was in full gear, but as we (re)learned, emotions have taken over and turned the rational switch OFF.)

So what’s a spouse to do when every step taken is like navigating a minefield? If it isn’t obvious already, start at STEP ONEActive Listening is the MOST important step in getting someone to calm down (two words you should NEVER say to the person, by the way…)

According to Chris Voss, the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator for many years, “If while you’re making your argument, the only time the other side is silent is because they’re thinking about their own argument, they’ve got a voice in their head that’s talking to them. They’re not listening to you. When they’re making their argument to you, you’re thinking about your argument, that’s the voice in your head that’s talking to you. If your first objective in the negotiation, instead of making your argument, is to hear the other side out, that’s the only way you can quiet the voice in the other guy’s mind. But most people don’t do that. They don’t walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They walk into a negotiation wanting to make an argument. They don’t pay attention to emotions and they don’t listen.”

Okay, got it. But how in the world do you actively listen well? Here are six techniques that the FBI uses that you can easily incorporate, too:

Six Techniques to Actively Listen Like a Boss

  1. Ask open-ended questions—You want them to open up, so avoid yes/no questions. A good example would be, “You sound upset. Can you help me understand what exactly is bothering you?”
  2. Effective Pause—Try remaining silent at appropriate times for emphasis or to defuse a one-sided emotional conversation (since most angry people are looking for a dialogue.)
  3. Minimal Encouragers—Let them know you’re listening with brief statements like, “Yeah” or “I see.”
  4. Mirroring—Repeat the last word or phrase they said. This shows you are trying to understand them and encourages them to continue. (NOTE: Don’t over do it… mirroring could become really annoying, really fast.)
  5. Paraphrasing—Repeat what the other person is saying back to them in your own words. This shows you really do understand and aren’t just squawking their words back to them like a parrot.
  6. Emotional Labeling—Give their feelings validation by naming them. Identify with how they feel. It’s not about whether they are right or wrong or completely crazy, it’s about showing them you understand and hear them.

Now that your spouse has talked your anger into letting its hostage go… your sweet self is once again thinking rationally. Once you’ve felt heard and understood, you can move on to working through problem-solving in a logical and healthy way with your spouse!

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