How to Diffuse an Argument or Properly Apologize
I hope this isn't a shocker, but I'm not perfect. Far from it actually. Under the right circumstances I've been known to say some really regrettable things to people that I care about and occasionally that includes saying inelegant or hurtful things in therapy. As a result, I've attempted and tried to learn about a lot of ways to recover in the relationship. One of the best methods I've used so far is pulled from Dr. David Burns of Stanford University who pioneered his own treatment method called TEAM-CBT for depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance use (see our Catalyst Intensives if you curious about this type of therapy).
His method for healing these relationships is called EAR, which stands for Empathy, Assertiveness, and Respect. Empathy has five sub-parts while Assertiveness and Respect each have one.
For empathy, start with the words "You're right." Yes, use those literal words. The reason those words are important are two-fold: it immediately diffuses the defensiveness of the other person and, perhaps even more importantly, it changes the posture of your heart. As stated in our previous article about anger, anger (and defensiveness) only want submission from whatever or whoever it is aimed at. An essential shift in trying to heal a relationship is moving your heart towards trying to construct rather than destruct - to find common ground rather than to win the argument. So the function of this simple statement is to get you working on and thinking about what things the other person has said that you agree with or believe to be fundamentally true (even if not everything), rather than spending your time identifying all the ways you are right.
Part two is simply naming what they said that you agree with.
Part three and four of empathy is thought and feeling empathy. We’ll have a future guide on the differences between thoughts and feelings (which we confuse a lot in our culture). Thought empathy sympathetically describes what you imagine they must have been thinking in the situation, and feeling empathy shares what feeling words they must have been feeling in the situation. Thought empathy are things like, “you must have thought I didn’t care about you at all,” or, “you must have thought I was so mean.” Feeling empathy are things like, “that must have felt devastating and hopeless,” or, “I could imagine you were feeling hurt, anxious, and alone.”
Part five of empathy is just checking in on whether you understood correctly. If yes, proceed to Assertiveness. If no, cycle through steps one through four above until there is a yes.
Assertiveness is the part of this process where you vulnerably share what your thought process and perspective were - being careful not to throw in “but” and/or explain why you actually were right and invalidate your empathy work. For example, assertiveness sounds like, “I really had no intention of being late to your birthday dinner. I was actually really pained over the decision of whether to stay at work and finish that report or just leave because you’re more important to me than work. I decided to stay and finish it because my boss has been volatile lately and I was really afraid I could lose my job and we don't have much in the bank right now. I thought (in the scope of things) being 15 min late would be ok (relative to losing my job) even though I didn’t want to be.” Assertiveness does NOT sound like, “My thoughts were, finishing my work is important and if you can’t handle me being 15 min late then you’re super immature. You have a birthday every year.” That's not vulnerable assertiveness, that's an attack.
This is the last part, and it’s really just reiterating some of the things you really respect and admire about the other person (particularly after just being assertive). This just assures that they know that overall you think of them positively and like them despite this disagreement.
Ok, I imagine all of that sounds complicated, but let me give you an example of what this could sound like in practice:
“You’re right. I should have been on time to your birthday dinner regardless of work, I could have finished the report later tonight since it was already after 5. I can imagine when I didn’t show up on time or call or text that you started thinking I forgot about you or that I really don’t care. I’m sure you felt really sad, unimportant, and alone. I really had no intention of being late. I really struggled with whether or not to stay at work and finish that report because you are more important to me. I decided to stay and finish it because my boss has been volatile lately and I became afraid I could lose my job. I want you to know that I think you’re wonderful. You’re smart, kind, thoughtful, and really care deeply about the people in your life.”
Longer than the usual, “I’m sorry,” but wow does this tend to diffuse the bomb of anger! If someone still is angry afterward, circle back to empathy and start over. I’ve actually even used this after the fact (hours/days/weeks/months/years later) when I got mad, said things I wished I didn’t, and then later realized how mean I was being. So in the midst of this time when we are all so stressed, try it out as needed! If it's not working well, we've often either not done a good enough job of empathy (shifting our heart posture) or our assertiveness was attacking. Also, using this doesn't mean the other person can forgive right away and you may need to wait or do this again as they realize new layers of their hurt. Ok, here it is in outline form:
Name what they’re right about
Optional: Check that you understood correctly
Vulnerably share your process and perspective
NOTE: This is NOT explaining why you were still actually right
Reiterate what you respect and admire about them
Good luck and feel free to ask questions below!