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Healthy Conflict: How to Recognize and Handle a Heated Conversation

One moment you’re having a seemingly healthy conversation with someone and the next you’re being pounced on like a gazelle in the Sahara. Your cheeks flush, your heartbeat races and you don’t know whether to fight back or run away. Whoa! When and how did the conversation go south so quickly?

Tensions are higher these days. Many people are dealing with lots of stressors – stress at work, stress at home, stress with finances. It’s understandable that patience is thin, but it can make healthy conversations that much harder.

“Globally we all share a common denominator: We are all under a lot more stress,” said Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “We struggle with a war in a country, inflation from that war, politics and our finances and health are strained. We are all a bit on edge these days.”

Productive conflict versus unhealthy conflict

Engaging in healthy conflict or productive disagreement is an aspect of every healthy relationship and company. What causes problems and leads to further conflict is when one person, a couple or group resorts to anger or aggressive behavior.

Productive conflict is an open conversation where differing views or ideas between people are equally heard and respected. Whereas, an unproductive, unhealthy conflict doesn’t seek resolution, per se. It can involve tearing down another person, name-calling, fighting, avoidance or stonewalling. “Simply put, unhealthy conflict erodes relationships, while productive ones strengthen them,” Dr. Adelayo said.

How to recognize when a conversation is getting heated

Heated arguments can happen, but they don’t just come out of nowhere. Perhaps you missed some subtle cues that something was up with the person you are speaking with. It’s also possible that you’re a wee bit defensive and sensitive or the topic is emotionally triggering.

Recognizing the early signs is important in helping to de-escalate and potentially avoid a conversation from getting out of hand. Here are some signs of conflict escalation to watch out for in another person:

  • They clench their fists
  • They tighten their jaw or clench their teeth
  • They are talking louder and faster, giving short, curt responses
  • They begin to breathe heavily
  • They begin to pace back and forth
  • They use “You” words instead of “I” or “We”
  • They start to bully or use abusive language

How to de-escalate an argument

If you notice a conversation is turning into a heated argument, here are four things you can do to try and get the conversation back on track.

1. Take a breath … or two

Once you realize the conversation is getting intense, take a deep breath to calm yourself. Take a second to collect yourself so you don’t meet fire with fire. Look around at objects in the room to help ground you to the conversation before you.

2. Model a calm behavior

Don’t point your fingers, shrug your shoulders or cross your arms. Avoid raising your voice. Use a quiet, calm tone and relaxed posture — arms down by your side. It’s much harder to yell at someone who isn’t yelling back.

“Some people use their tone and body language to push others around – maybe even to get a rise out of them – and don’t care about hearing anyone else’s side or perspective,” Dr. Adelayo said. “When you remain tempered and calm, this helps set the tone and boundaries for the rest of the conversation.”

3. Validate their feelings and concerns

It’s not about who is right or wrong, so getting in the final word or trying to “win” the conversation will only add fuel to the fire. Listen to the other person to understand what they want. Let them know you are listening by summarizing back to them what you heard.

“Ask open-ended, clarifying questions to allow the other person to talk out their feelings and feel heard,” said Dr. Adelayo. “While a lot of de-escalating is figuring out what you need, it’s also about making sure you understand the other person.”

4. Don’t walk away unless you need to

“Sometimes walking away can make someone angrier,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Only walk away if you’re in physical danger.”

Watch the other person’s emotional state. Continue with the first few steps. If tensions continue to rise, respectfully ask if you both can take a break and revisit the topic after you can both collect your thoughts. It’s not possible to reason or problem-solve with someone who is enraged.

If the person is being a bully and flexing their superiority over you, becomes aggressive or you fear violence against you, it’s time to walk away and ask for help. “This is dangerous and emotionally and physically unsafe,” Dr. Adelayo said.

What to do if you’re quick to anger

Anger is an emotion that we will all experience at some point in our lives. However, if you find yourself more sensitive, angrier or short-tempered when engaging in conversation with others and self-help actions don’t work, a licensed behavioral health specialist can help.

“Through therapy, you can get help recognizing the root causes triggering your anger. You may also learn different ways to respond to triggers more healthily,” said Dr. Adelayo.

To find a behavioral specialist near you, visit

Final word

When dealing with an angry person, it can be easy to let yourself get wrapped up in a heated argument. But remaining calm, listening and validating the person and setting boundaries can help de-escalate a heated conversation.

As a reminder, if you find yourself in a dangerous or volatile situation, it’s time to remove yourself from the situation and get help.

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