A Quick Solution for Handling an Unexpected Argument in Session


Many relationships that come into your office could be on the verge of an uncontrollable argument at any moment. These types of unsteady, volatile relationships often reveal themselves early on in the therapeutic process. For many clinicians, it feels uncomfortable or intimidating, knowing that every disagreement might result in a full-blown verbal boxing match.

But what about those relationships that seem stable and appear to be working reasonably well, yet when a disagreement occurs, the proverbial gloves come off and a volcano erupts. Their behavior quickly disintegrates into survival mode, trying to one-up each other with insults, hoping to be louder, more sarcastic or mean, just to win the battle. It becomes an "every man for himself" mentality.

In reality, when hot buttons are pushed, even the most stable of relationships can quickly spiral out of control. However, unlike relationships that are always on the brink of an argument, these intense, angry reactions can catch us off-guard. It can be confusing and even scary witnessing the quick emotional dysregulation of a relationship. It's also disconcerting when an argument seems to come out of nowhere as these two seemingly "together" individuals resort to name-calling, disrespectful jabs, and competitive yelling.

I've seen this happen dozens of times in my office and each time, I think to myself, "Hmmm...  did I see this one coming?" I don't get overwhelmed or scared. Instead, I immediately go into helping mode. I want to educate my clients about what just took place, and why. Keep in mind that these quick, intense and inappropriate reactions are often confusing and surprising to our clients as well. They don't understand their reactive behavior and are often embarrassed and uncomfortable at how their communication falls apart so easily during those moments.

I want to reassure them that I can help them gain insight as to why this negative conflict pattern is happening and offer a quick solution for how to change it. As with all of my clients, I also want them to become the best person, partner, parent, etc., that they can be through increased self-awareness, more effective communication, and understanding how to have a healthy relationship. If I can help them to understand what just took place, then they can immediately begin to make some positive changes to adjust the toxic conflict cycle.

To start, I briefly help them to understand that their reactions were intense, inappropriate and in many respects, irrational. This irrational reaction was more than likely triggered emotionally by something the other person said or did. I explore the reasons for the triggers at a later time because initially, and more importantly, I'm more interested in discussing that during the moment of escalation, neither of them was caring about the other person. They were both thinking about themselves and their own hurt feelings. The other person quickly became their enemy, and they were each going to protect themselves at all cost. This behavior is what I refer to as being turned away, and it is part of Key Element #2 of the Relationship Protocol model.

In the Relationship Protocol, there are two Key Elements. These Key Elements naturally exist in all healthy relationships and they are mandatory ingredients. However, when relationships disintegrate during times of conflict, it becomes our job to help clients learn how to break this cycle by understanding the importance of the two Key Elements.  Our role is to teach clients about the ingredients necessary for a healthy relationship so they can begin making positive changes.

Key Element #1 is "Commitment." Both individuals are committed to the other person and committed to improving their relationship. Let's assume that in general, these individuals have demonstrated their commitment to each other. Yet, when they have a disagreement, neither behaves in a committed way.

Next, here’s how Key Element #2 "Shift Your Thinking," comes into play during these conflicts. Key Element #2 asks both individuals to metaphorically turn towards the other person, value them and approach them as if you’re on the same team. They shift their thinking from an "I" perspective to a "We" relationship perspective. The thinking behind this Key Element is, if I value you, then I will be respectful and treat you in ways that let you know that you are important to me, even during challenging times. If I allow myself to be rude or disrespectful to you, then I'm turned away and not demonstrating Key Element #2.

Help your clients understand the importance of the Key Elements ––because when they don’t consistently have a relationship perspective, they are at greater risk for the volcanic, out of control spiraling to occur during times of conflict. This new information becomes a long-term solution toward changing destructive communication patterns.

And of course, teaching your clients how to communicate with each other, and how to navigate conversations during those difficult moments is also critical to their success!