Take A Moment – Cooling It Down Before It Heats Up

Very little good ever comes out of rushing a conversation, particularly when one or both of the parties are emotional worked-up. Yet this is what I see happening all the time and it’s common advice to “talk it out.”

It’s really silly to press on someone to talk things out when they don’t know how they feel or are emotionally aroused. You aren’t talking to them, you’re talking to their emotion, and that’s rarely good. The logical part of the brain is in stand-by so they’re likely going to say a bunch of stuff that feels to them to be terribly important, but doesn’t necessarily reflect what they would say in 10 minutes. But that’s what you get when you hammer on someone to talk about stuff they don’t, at that moment in time, fully understand or appreciate. You need to let things cool down enough to proceed logically, and you need to be able to push pause on the conversation if it approaches the critical level of arousal again.

Why do conversations heat-up in the first place?

Assuming there isn’t a eminent physical threat, there really is only one reason for a conversation to become heated, it reveals information that is incompatible with one party’s world views and is therefore interpreted as a possible survival threat. This is a survival response that is initiated unconsciously when presented with new information does not match an existing pattern. The body release a chemical mix that is experienced as fear, which if left to fester will quickly become anger. This mix also suspends the activity of the prefrontal cortex to ensure that higher level functions do not interrupt the emotional response. Once you are emotionally worked-up, the conversation degrades because of the lack of logic and because dominating the incompatible information out of existence will help to maintain an accurate world view; at least from a survival point of view.

Given the nature of most heated conversations it isn’t surprising that people argue as much as they do. Everyone has a world view that they would like to keep intact and compatible with reality. If you are going to talk to anyone ever, you need to accept that you are going to disagree and that you need to do this effectively and appropriately to move past disagreements and to allow for the rapid assimilation of world view changing information.

What Does Cooling Down Look Like?

Topic is breached in a conversation that triggers emotional response. Pause. Don’t say much. Just let the moment be and see what happens. It will seem like a long time, but take 5 seconds before replying with anything. After 5 seconds, take stock of how you feel. Do you feel confused in that you don’t know what you are feeling? Is there a tightness / excitement in your stomach indicating a fight or flight response? It doesn’t matter, just reply with “okay” and take another moment to observe how you are feeling.

The next thing you need to identify is if you are having an emotional response to the information. If you are, say “can we push pause on this conversation right now? I’m not 100% sure how I feel and I need to take a moment to collect my thoughts.” This should grant you some time to get yourself together. If they keep talking say “I’m having a visceral response to something I’m thinking and I need sometime to let the emotions clear.” If this doesn’t get you the time you need, you need to walk away. They either don’t care or are incapable of caring because the conversation has trigger an emotional response in them.

Once the conversation has stopped, take a few deep breaths and relax. If you aren’t dead yet or haven’t been attacked, there is very little danger to your physical health so what is happening is only a threat to your world view, ego, etc… and does therefore not require an emotional response. As you relax more, let logic take over to help you see things more clearly. Once you know how you feel about the topic, reengage the other person if they are able to be receptive to what you are saying; that is, they are not responding emotionally. Press pause if either party begins to get worked-up again, cool off and repeat as often as you need to in order to find closure or a solution that both people can and are willing to work with.

Life is long and no two people will have the same journey. You are going to have disagreements with the people you care about concerning the best way to live life, move things forward and about your life experiences. In almost every case, there are 1000’s of different ways to end up in the same place. You need to make sure to just let go of the emotions that new information or opinion creates and move forward, cool and relaxed.