What are some creative ways of disrupting or stopping a heated argument?
July 7, 2015 11:27 PM   Subscribe

As a third party, how can I creatively stop or deescalate an argument I see happening between two others. I have been trying to creatively break up the many arguments I see in my family on a regular basis. I am witness to some pretty intense, basically borderline freak outs on a fairly regular basis.

These people I see fighting are usually very caught up in there disagreement (screaming at one another, crying, shrieking, having adult temper-tantrums and throwing verbal missiles at one another as loudly as possible and sometimes for 20 mns+). The other day, just as I was about to convince my mother to take care of a long standing personal problem, I hear another fight starting up. I was desperate and determined to do something to nip this fight in the bud, so I could hopefully get back to the convo with my mom. Im not really sure what was going through my head but I found myself throwing off my shirt, shorts and undies, and gallopping/hopping my completely naked self towards them while bellowing "cmon you guys, be happy, be happy, be happy..." I was only naked for maybe 5 seconds but it did the trick and my dad and sister were thrown off and distracted enough that I was able to pull my sister away from the whole thing and everyone was able to just go about there business as usual.

I dont think I will be getting naked again anytime soon, but this is the kind of thing I am looking for. Normal methods dont seem to help when it comes to my family, but what are some creative things that I should try? I would love to hear what has worked for you that is out of the ordinary and in what situation."
posted by helloilikebooks to Human Relations (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In my family it was the Done Thing for the non-arguing third party to start singing — usually a showtune; Anything Goes was a favourite of mine — loudly enough for the participants to be distracted. It often worked.

But as an adult I've learned this: it's not my responsibility to stop other people from arguing, and if their arguing is hurting me it's my job to protect myself — which usually means leaving the vicinity of the argument. There's not requirement for me to suffer during other people's rows.

If I were you I'd be asking myself why it is that you feel the responsibility for stopping arguments. Why you? It isn't your job.
posted by gmb at 1:20 AM on July 8, 2015 [25 favorites]

You can't control other people. You can control your reactions.

So set boundaries. If people around you start fighting, say "I am not staying here if you continue this." If they continue, leave.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:21 AM on July 8, 2015 [24 favorites]

Mine were much more low-key than your family arguments, but when my teenage kids used to argue and it would escalate into a screaming match, I would shout, "STOP!" and then start singing, "In the name of love, before you break my heart, think it ow-ow-over". Complete with what I imagined were something like The Supremes dance moves.

It didn't solve the argument but they got to laugh at their ditzy mother and her crappy dancing, and it defused the situation enough that they would either forget about the argument or dial it back into a civilised discussion.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 1:46 AM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is heartbreaking, honestly. I know you want to fix things, but if things are to be fixed (and there's no guarantee with that), it's going to take more (and less exciting) work than stunts. Your family might get used to them after more than a couple, anyway.

Your tags include "borderline personality disorder"; who's got that, and are they getting help for it? If they are, is family therapy available through that pathway? It might be worth trying, if "normal" methods aren't working.

You could talk to each of them - separately - when things are calm, and tell them how much these disagreements hurt and distress you, and that it's important to you to try to work towards some kind of peace in the house. Maybe one or more of them will be up for it - stranger things have happened. I think some outside help might be useful, though, because I think you're right, feeling compelled to streak your own home is a pretty robust sign communication's broken down.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:56 AM on July 8, 2015 [13 favorites]

I am glad some of the other posters have chimed in with the "it's not your problem to fix" response. Wanting to fix these situations is a freeway on-ramp to codependecy.

However, maybe you and your sister could form a pact where if one of you is in the middle of a screaming match with a parent (which never has a winner, ever), the other can have a sign or symbol that means "Save yourself! Shut up and walk away now! I'll grab the ice-cream!"

Your parents are parenting wrong if screaming matches are common. Save yourselves years of therapy by learning to disengage. If your sister won't play along, play alone. It is far more important that you protect yourself from the damage of witnessing these screamfests than stopping the screamfests.
posted by Thella at 2:07 AM on July 8, 2015 [12 favorites]

(And maybe they won't be up for it - or ready for it - and then you'll have to decide what to do about that. Agree that it's not your role, or in your power, necessarily, to distract them or mediate between them, and that you should resist the temptation to do that. Which might take your whole life. But you can express your hopes. Things can improve, it's possible, but it will take more than just your effort.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:09 AM on July 8, 2015

This guy had the right idea -- literally physically intercede without reacting to the fight at all. I did the same thing a time or two when I was overseas in the Army. You just sort of stand there between two people who are arguing, but don't become part of the argument. Don't take sides, don't even acknowledge that there are sides to take. You just happen to be standing in the way. If they engage with you, just sort of absently nod in their direction and keep doing the thing you were doing.
posted by Etrigan at 2:26 AM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

You have the assertive right to walk out of a situation. That's what I did when the rest of the family started arguing during my teen years. I learned a lot of audio editing skills that way, because this happened a lot.
posted by hz37 at 3:08 AM on July 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Walk away, every single time. It's not healthy for YOU to feel that it is your responsibility to deal with their choices....
posted by HuronBob at 3:22 AM on July 8, 2015 [13 favorites]

Good move on the stripping! It is very miserable. The next time that they start to fight, smile at them, stand up, and start unzipping your pants. They might laugh. When things start to get touchy, ask them if you need to take your clothes off again. Buy some pasties to leave around the house as gentle reminders that they need to control their tempers.

During a calm moment, it would be best to pull the sanest one of them aside and tell them that the fights have got to stop or you will no longer be seeing them all together. It is ridiculous for adults to act that way.
posted by myselfasme at 4:47 AM on July 8, 2015

So, if you stripping down to your skivvies didn't trigger some kind of aha moment where everyone realizes they need to stop escalating arguments, then I think the advice to just walk away is best.

I was in a somewhat similar situation temporarily, in school, part of a group I was stuck with for a few classes had a number of personalities that clashed. I would get up and walk away mid-conversation if things started to head south (find me when you sort it out). Even if it was just smack talk behind someone's back, I'd remove myself from the room (I'm usually someone who understands venting, so I didn't shame anyone for their actions, I just wouldn't be present for it). If they needed something from me then they had to track me down (no one had my cell number, so they had to physically track me down) and stay on point. Meetings got a lot faster.

This was probably a lot easier to do in a group situation where they needed me around occasionally for stuff. With family, things are more fluid, so removing yourself might not be as effective in enforcing good behavior in your presence, but it will at least remove you from the stressful situation.
posted by ghost phoneme at 6:56 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, just remove yourself from the situation and don't inject yourself into their discussions. Whenever my sister and I, or my mom and my sister (or some other combination thereof) have a disagreement of the mildest sort, e.g. "I don't want pasta again I'm tired of pasta." "JUST EAT THE PASTA.") my dad gets antsy and begs us to stop fighting, oh please stop fighting, he cannot handle the fighting.

And it doesn't de-escalate the situation at all. It escalates it to an almost hilarious degree, only it's not hilarious in the moment, because his pleading with us to "stop fighting" sets off a reaction similar to someone telling you to "calm down." Nobody ever wants to hear those words. Nobody wants to deal with someone sticking their nose into whatever level of disagreement. Just leave the room and let them sort it out.
posted by witchen at 7:22 AM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Walk away, every single time. It's not healthy for YOU to feel that it is your responsibility to deal with their choices....

This is my advice. The question you asked about breaking up an argument is one question. Dealing with family members who are having toxic arguments/freakouts is another type of question entirely. I get that you may want people to stop fighting, it's a natural impulse, fighting people are frequently terrible. At the same time, it's not your problem to solve and you being the one who makes it stop will not help them get the coping strategies to learn (if they can learn) to de-escalate on their own. This puts you in a weird position of being necessary to their arguing process and it's a terrible place to be, ask me how I know!

So to that end, my suggestions are

- leave
- turn the music up really loud
- call the police if you think you or anyone else is in danger

Creating and maintaining your own boundaries in the face of unreasonable people is a good skill to have as a grown-up.
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 AM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

God, I spent a miserable amount of my childhood convinced it was my responsibility to break up hostility between my dad and mom, or at least to be on-hand to protect my mom if things got bad, and it left emotional scars that I'm still dealing with several decades on. I didn't realize it was hurting me at the time - I was convinced that "I could take it" and that it was somehow critical for me to be there, but all I did was absorb so much anger, and terror, and utter helplessness ... like cotton dress sock, I agree that this is heartbreaking.

From that perspective, I want to be sure it's clear that all of us who are saying to protect yourself and not intervene are not saying this from a "LOL not my problem" perspective. The point isn't that you shouldn't care about your family members; it's that you really can't fix this, not on a long-term basis. All you're doing is interrupting a sneeze - it'll come back on again soon enough if the underlying problems aren't fixed. It's up to your family members to do the hard work of addressing whatever is causing these horrible fights, if they choose to do so.

YOUR job is to take good, loving care of yourself. Maybe it would help to consider what you're hoping to achieve by stopping the fights. Do you want to alleviate the stress of being around fighting people? Then walk away - remove yourself from that environment. Do you want to keep your family members from hurting each other emotionally? Talk to them in a calm moment, let them know of your concerns, and then absolve yourself of this responsibility - because you cannot control them. Are you afraid they're going to physically hurt each other? Again, you cannot control this. Either trust that they are capable of taking care of themselves, or call the police if necessary - don't take it upon yourself.

Maybe read about loving detachment online - I can't give you a good book recommendation, but the basic idea is to give people the space to be responsible for themselves, while you take care of yourself. This is the healthiest thing you can do, for you AND your family, and I really do hope you'll choose to walk away from your family's fights in the future. Good luck to you.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:14 AM on July 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

Okay wow, I missed the BPD tag.

1) Is this an actual official diagnosis or armchair?

2) Who has BPD?

You may need some different strategies depending on what those answers are. I have BPD, this isn't a judgey thing.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:33 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

From a former clown, I urge you not to cast yourself in the role of the clown here. It's a short-term solution to their arguments that will have long-term repercussions for you.

Using a bit of humor to defuse tense situations every great once in a while is one thing, and a good instinct of yours; regularly sacrificing your dignity to play a part in an unhealthy dynamic is quite another. That role might become permanent throughout your life if you don't draw a boundary now.
posted by kapers at 8:47 AM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Others have better, more serious suggestions, but if the devil were in me that day, I would jump in there and solemnly declare "I will take the ring to Mordor! Though I do not know the way."
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:50 AM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

My family had lots of drama. When I see a fight brewing, I'm inclined to detach, But. When my son is starting a fight, I might be a Mom, and try to talk to him. Hey, you seem tired/ stressed. What's up with that? with mixed results. Distraction can work, though I have never tried nudity. My Mom used to have massive meltdowns, and I learned to see them coming. One time, she was gearing up, and we had stuff to get done, and I asked her a random question to distract her from bearing down and starting a fight. My siblings looked at me like I was nuts, but it dawned on them when Mom started discussing window treatments instead of an imagined slight.

But what made the biggest difference was stopping participation in unhealthy crap. Over a long time, Mom learned that a meltdown was an effective way to get her family to leave, so she got better at being less volatile when she wanted us to be there. Up to a point. Try to love your family as well as you can, appreciating what they have to offer, and not accept the crap. They will try to draw you in, but you can choose to be healthier.
posted by theora55 at 10:36 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have sometimes had good luck with verbally inserting myself in a way that is like kicking the stuck antlers of two stag deer apart. Very often, these stuck arguments are a case of neither party feeling or being heard. Sometimes, clarifying for the two of them that something else is going on entirely can put a stop to that specific argument and also go a long way towards stopping the pattern.

To pull it off, you have to have a good idea of what each side's "issue" is and how they are talking past each other. In short, you need a good understanding of what the disconnect is. You also need to focus on not blaming either party and just working to get each side better understood by the other. You need to be compassionate and understanding and supportive of both sides. Try to understand why each side feels the way they feel and has a valid complaint or point of view in there somewhere.

I know I have done this with other people, but I cannot think of specifics of conversations where I did so. The only example that comes to mind is when my mother was really giving me hell about something one day -- nothing I did was right or good enough -- and I told her something like "Mom, when I am your age, I will be as good as you are. Of course, by then, you will be 90 and you will still think I suck at everything." She stopped cold, cracked up and left the room. She has been easier to deal with ever since.
posted by Michele in California at 4:12 PM on July 8, 2015

It's dangerous to set yourself up as a distractor/savior. It can trigger in you over-investment in results you have very little power over. I have to regularly remind myself that I only have control over my own actions, that I can control my energy, but not the energy of anyone around me. The intensity of how you describe your conversation with your mother, 'just about to convince', stands out to me as a warning sign that you may not be aware of where you end and she begins, and that those boundaries require some attention and care.

That being said, there are ways in which nonsensical goofiness can work, combined with a calm, warm detachment. It's a weird mindset to cultivate, and I recommend being very conscious about when and how you use it. It demands not having an attachment to the outcomes, though - you are just here, being your chill and somewhat goofy self; they get to chose how they react to it. I use it in it's full force (I'm a therapist) very rarely, though a milder version is essentially my "professional demeanor"; I consciously take it on and put it off, and I'm careful to not get to invested in being able to be the calm, centered, kind font of goofiness because it could cut me off from my other emotions and eventually make me unable to return to that state. Being a whole person who fails and cries and hurts is very, very important for this kind of work.

Prioritize self-care outside of these situations. Be kind to yourself. Buy food you enjoy eating and which makes you feel good. Do things just to give yourself pleasure. Encourage others to do the same things, either with you or on your own. Most people aren't kind enough to themselves, and a challenging family situation with lots of fights is an important time to prioritize being kind and practice on yourself.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:56 PM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sometimes people need some breathing space to forget why they were fighting. If that looks like what's happening, get one to go with you somewhere else, because you need that person to help you right now with something that only that person can do. Your bicycle brakes need to be adjusted and the other person is really good with his or her hands. Your homework is just too confusing tonight and the other person was always good at figuring this stuff out. Your car seems to be making a funny noise unless you are just imagining things, but let's go around the block and see, and maybe let's pick up some ice cream now that we're out of the house.

If that doesn't work, you can just go out alone and hope you don't come home to brain matter on a blunt instrument.
posted by pracowity at 5:05 AM on July 9, 2015

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