How to cool a heated conversation

Hedgehog Heated Conversations

An argument on holiday is doubly painful: it hurts whoever is involved and spoils the time you put aside for replenishment. What is it about summer (or other times you think you could relax) that sparks off tension instead? 


It’s hard to do something different when the heat of the moment is on so I invite you to investigate better options with me now.

Here are some for tips on how you can ease tension in future conversations.

First aid for heated moments

Like weather, a heated conversation is a result of many factors that combine over time.

When I coach people, we look into those factors together so they can improve the climate of interactions with a particular ‘difficult’ person. Since I don’t have the details of what causes YOUR stormy encounters, I’ll give you the next best thing to coaching: some first aid tips.

An argument is quite a lot like a medical emergency. It’s sudden, painful and if not attended to fast, it can escalate into something that destroys your health (in this context, at stake is the health of your relationships). First aid is not for resolving the whole problem of course, but it is the first necessary response that stops things from worsening and invites healing.

When an acute situation develops in a conversation, it’s natural to react the way people do in an accident: with shock and a surge of energy towards self-preservation. But an argument is a double emergency. Both parties are being wounded even if you imagine that the other person is not as hurt as you.

Nonviolent Communication calls such emotional emergency ‘an empathy clash’. The ’emergency scene’ of an argument, without skilled intervention, looks a bit like two wounded people aggravating each other’s wounds. Shocked, each acts as if lashing out at the other wounded being could somehow help them…

The crucial first step in medicine and first aid is primum non nocere: first, do not harm. In a heated conversation, this means finding whatever doable way to pause heated words.

Can you do it?

If you’ve ever tried to pause arguing mid-momentum, you’ll know the urge to continue speaking is very strong. Like a whirlpool, isn’t it? Yet, when someone’s speaking heated words to YOU, is it endearing you to their concerns?

As carrying on arguing does more harm than good, just to pause and calm down is wise intervention.

Sometimes people think: “I can’t stop because he…” Easily done. And, it’s also true that it takes two to argue. Whatever the other person may say or do, there’s no argument if you stop.

When you pause, you actively create a possibility for both of you to reduce hurting. Better perspective is easier to get if you’re calmer and nearly impossible when you are not.

How do you pause when wanting to speak on?

In the book “Change Anything”*, there’s a true story of an obese woman who found a way to resist adding yet another portion onto her plate.

She spent years trying and giving up on diets. Finally, she realised that the way to restrain herself was not to use willpower.

Each time she couldn’t resist having ‘more’, she’d only get depressed and give into what she knew was harmful to her health.

So she scaled down her ambition from ‘virtuous’ to ‘doable’.

Instead of trying to stop eating when she was tempted to, she asked herself only to pause and slowly read out a card she’d made:

‘I’d like to feel healthier’ (deep breath)

‘I’d like to like the way I look in the mirror’

‘I’d like to model healthy living to my grandkids’

‘I’d like to have more physical stamina’ (breath)

‘I’d like my husband to be proud of how I look’

Pausing this way became a way out of a hopeless cycle for this woman. It gave her the missing, essential space to change gears upward from an action that was hurting her. Her pause to feel into what mattered to her gave her strength to THEN resist the unhelpful urge.

How to create your calming pause

So what would work for you to help you resist adding another word to an argument in progress?

Grab a pen and paper and answer the three questions below. In a few minutes, you’ll have created your very own argument pausing tool.

1. If you’ve ever been in an argument that escalated, what negative consequences have you noticed from talking on? List how the escalation hindered what mattered to you.


  • The issue took much longer than I had
  • It provoked bitter feelings towards the person
  • I was feeling worse and worse and the situation got worse instead of better for both of us
  • I became afraid to discuss other stuff with him

2. In your heart of hearts, how would you like your key conversations to go? What’s important to you when talking with people?


  • I love it when people join hearts and heads together to solve issues rather than fighting
  • I thrive on gentleness in the way people talk
  • Smaller chunks with breaks help me process conversations as I get overwhelmed with lots of fast talking and unexpected turn of events

3. If you combine insights from your answers above, what would you write on your ‘pause card’? Start with “I’d like” and choose things that your heart really cares about.


  • I’d like to be part of a solution instead of making the problem bigger.
  • I’d like to initiate gentleness and kind feelings
  • I’d like to solve problems together and experience conflict as opportunity, not drama

Make an actual mini-card as research shows writing things down helps them stick.*

Best wishes for any type of heat you may be in!
* “Change Anything” by K. Patterson, J. Grenny, D. Maxfield, Ron McMillan, A. Switzler (2014)