by Ellen Blake
Do you know people who loudly and passionately state their views, intent on convincing you their opinion is the right one? Sure you do, we all do. Some people are adamant their perspective is the only one that makes sense. These folks are generally unable or unwilling to appreciate other viewpoints, which is exasperating and can easily ruin an otherwise lovely event. These conversations can go on and on even if you disagree respectfully, or worse, escalate if you react with anger or frustration. How do you politely stop a conversation with someone who is acting like a jerk?
What to Say to End an Argument
What to say to end an argument? Good question. Unfortunately, there’s no one right answer, and what works in one situation may not work well in another. The best I can do is share some helpful tips with you, based on watching others successfully diffuse unpleasant situations.
I’m fortunate to have people in my life who set wonderful examples of how to effectively deal with difficult and sometimes irrational people. My parents were particularly amazing in these circumstances; I rarely saw either of them lose their cool or even engage for any length of time in a silly argument. They taught me it doesn’t make sense to waste time or energy on people who can’t hear what you’re saying. So what if the other person has opinions you think are ridiculous? You’re not going to change them.
Helpful Techniques to Diffuse a Difficult Conversation
Here are some tips to help deescalate a difficult conversation based on my observations. These suggestions may take some practice as some are much easier said than done.
Change the Subject
Try to redirect the conversation to a more neutral topic to steer away from conflict. If appropriate, use humor to diffuse tension to help lighten the mood. Doing so might provide an opportunity to gracefully exit the conversation and start a new one. Trying to change the subject is a good first step.
Try to Interrupt
Interjecting can be hard, but it’s not impossible. A phrase like “Can I jump in to share my thoughts here?” is a polite way to interrupt the conversation. You may need to act more forcefully if that doesn’t work, perhaps using the assertiveness technique known as the broken record. With this technique, you choose a short statement to repeat quietly and calmly. The goal is not to upset or intimidate the other person, so you don’t want to deliver the statement in a tone that can be perceived as aggressive or threatening. This technique can effectively communicate that you are not going to change your position.
Let Them Have the Last Word
Really? When I tell people I try to let the other person have the last word amid an unfortunate conversation, they usually respond with great surprise. After all, it’s natural to want to speak our minds when we vehemently disagree with someone. Why shouldn’t we respond to crazy statements by sharing our own thoughts? We all want to be heard, especially when convinced we are right, and we are sure the other person is wrong. Consider, however, that your desire to engage is possibly due to ego more than rational thought. Will your response be helpful in the situation? Probably not, as hotheads are rarely open-minded or interested in differing opinions. And think about it – there’s no argument if only one person is talking, right? Letting the other person have the last word is a great way to end an unfortunate conversation. Let them think they won the argument; you know they didn’t.
Stay Calm and Ignore Provocations
It’s very important to try to maintain your composure and remain calm and in control. Responding with anger or frustration can escalate the situation quickly. If the other person is trying to provoke a reaction from you, which is often the case, choose to keep your cool and not engage with them. You may find that the quieter you get, the louder they get, and you may need to excuse yourself to end the conversation. Maintaining your own peace of mind is crucial and it’s okay to disengage from a conversation if it becomes toxic.
How to Deal with a Jerk Without Being a Jerk?
I believe a clever and tactful phrase can prove very useful when aiming to gracefully diffuse a difficult situation. The above tips are great in theory, but I know some people find specific suggestions more helpful. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words in the heat of an argument.
5 Clever Phrases to End an Argument
I’ve watched people use different phrases effectively when attempting to politely deescalate a tense conversation. Notice I didn’t include “Let’s agree to disagree” in this list; the reason is because this phrase is, in my opinion, an overused cliché that can feel like a sock got stuffed in your mouth right in the middle of an important discussion. Below are phrases I find more powerful.
“I Think We May Be Getting Off Track”
You may need to reel in the conversation when someone goes off on a tangent, especially if the discussion gets ugly. “I think we may be getting off track” is a polite way to bring the focus of the exchange back where it should be.
“That’s interesting” or “That’s an interesting thought” respectfully acknowledges someone’s comment in a nonjudgmental way, while at the same time letting it roll off your back. With this type of remark, you are simply pointing out they contributed a thought to the conversation, neither good or bad, but you don’t consider it important enough to explore further.
“Could You Repeat That?”
We all talk without thinking sometimes, and many of us learned the hard way that it can lead to saying something we might regret. If you are talking with someone engaging in this behavior, this line provides offers the opportunity to realize what they said and hopefully reassess their comment. Why not give the other person the benefit of the doubt? This phrase may not work the way you hope, and they may simply repeat the same comment, but it’s worth a try.
“Let Me Think About That.”
“Let me think about that” buys you time. And taking time to think allows you to calm down. It additionally sends a message that you care enough to consider the other person’s point of view, which they will likely appreciate.
“You Might Be Right”
“You might be right” is my all-time favorite line to use to diffuse an escalating situation. Try it- it’s fantastic. You’re not agreeing with the other person, though it may sound that way to them. Nine times out of ten, this statement will abruptly stop the conversation. Who’s going to argue with “You might be right”? However, in reality, you are not giving in at all. Sure, they might be right, but they might not be.
The Problem with Irrational People
The above tips assume the other person in the conversation has some degree of integrity and rationality. Unfortunately, certain people, for example, narcissists, do not possess these qualities and are not interested in rational conversation. They have their own narrative, generally based on emotions, that they can rarely back up with facts or data. They seem to have learned somewhere along the way that behaving in an emotional manner is the best way to control a conversation as the other person often simply backs down when attacked with highly intense feelings. Even the “broken record” technique, where you repeat logical facts, tends not to work with this personality type. So, while the above tips might be somewhat helpful and worth a try, it’s important you know when to drop the argument when dealing with an irrational individual.
Things Not to Say in an Argument
If your goal is to diffuse a difficult conversation, you’ll want to avoid certain phrases that will surely inflame the other person. Here are a few things not to say in an argument:
- “I’ll talk to you when you can be rational.”
- “We’re done!”
- “You’re such a @#$%&!”
- “Calm down!”
- “That’s stupid.” or “That’s ridiculous.”
Learning to diffuse a difficult conversation politely is a valuable skill that reflects emotional intelligence (EQ), a concept that became popular in 1990. Joanne Frederick, a licensed professional mental health counselor based in Washington, D.C. says,
“Emotional intelligence is the ability to use, understand and positively manage one’s own emotions, and to manage stress, communicate effectively, de-escalate issues, problem solve and empathize with other people,”
Among other things, EQ requires a high degree of self-awareness. If you have a strong ability to notice, identify, and respond appropriately to the emotions of others, chances are you have a high EQ.
The Bottom Line
Responding to a jerk without being a jerk is often easier said than done. Still, it’s desirable to maintain positive relationships, foster effective communication, and avoid unnecessary conflict and hostility. While it’s true that communication involves both speaking and listening, there are situations when diffusing an uncomfortable conversation politely is valuable even if the other person isn’t receptive or doesn’t immediately understand.
Responding with politeness, respect, and empathy reflects your values and helps to prevent escalation of the argument. It also helps you maintain your own emotional well-being as engaging in a heated or confrontational exchange can be emotionally draining. However, it’s important to note that there are situations where it may be necessary to simply disengage from a conversation if it becomes unproductive or harmful.
Do you have other tips and techniques that work well for you to diffuse a difficult conversation? Please share in the comment section below.