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When I was in second grade, my two best friends got in a fight with each other.
I can’t remember what started it (although I vaguely recall something about who was using the new box of colored pencils). All I know is that there were a lot of “you can’t play with us” and “you’re not invited to my birthday party anymore” type of comments thrown around.
When it was time for recess that afternoon, one of them headed off for the monkey bars and the other went for the jump ropes. They both looked at me like, “Whose side are you going to take?”
I still remember the visceral anxiety I felt in that moment.
I hated that they were fighting, and all I wanted was for us all to be friends again. So I pulled out my most sophisticated 7-year-old diplomatic skills and suggested a game that I knew they both loved. They couldn’t resist, and before long we were all playing together again, the argument from the morning totally forgotten.
I’ve been playing the “Peacekeeper” role in arguments ever since.
This may sound like a positive, healthy way to react during an argument, but it’s actually fueled from a place of deep fear and anxiety. Peacekeepers are extremely uncomfortable with negative emotions, so they’re constantly smoothing over conflicts the moment they arise. It might look positive on the outside, but all of that suppressed anger, frustration, or guilt can eventually turn ugly.
Being a Peacekeeper is only one of the most common roles that people tend to play in arguments. After coaching hundreds of people for thousands of hours, I’ve noticed patterns around the different ways people react when faced with conflict. They tend to fall into 4 major categories, which I’m explaining fully on the blog.
THE 4 MOST COMMON ROLES PEOPLE PLAY IN ARGUMENTS
Avoiders are so conflict-averse that they’ll do anything to avoid getting into an argument. And if they do find themselves in one, they’ll find any possible way to escape. That might mean physically leaving the room or hanging up the phone, or it may just mean mentally or emotionally checking out of the conversation.
If you’re an Avoider, you likely feel a deep, almost primal instinct to flee in the middle of an argument or somehow make it stop. If you avoid the temptation to physically leave, you probably won’t say much in response to the other person’s anger. You’ll have short, clipped responses like, “Sure, whatever,” or “Fine, do what you want,” that are aimed at shutting down the conversation. You may try to change the subject if you see any opening.
The Avoider’s go-to moves in an argument:
- Physically walking away or hanging up the phone
- Changing the subject
- Distracting themselves and/or the other person away from the argument
- Acting like everything is fine
- Putting up an emotional wall
Peacekeepers, like I mentioned before, are almost as conflict-averse as Avoiders, but instead of walking away from an argument, they desperately want to step in and find a peaceful resolution. When someone is mad at them, they will do anything to get back in that person’s good graces, including compromising on their beliefs/values or putting their own needs last.
Not only do Peacekeepers hate being in arguments, they also hate seeing friends, family members, or coworkers arguing amongst themselves. They often feel compelled to try to step in and smooth things over in any way they can. If you’re a Peacekeeper, you’ve probably found yourself mediating arguments or being the “go-between,” even if the conflict had nothing to do with you.
The Peacekeeper’s go-to moves in an argument:
- Appeasing everyone to try to resolve things as quickly as possible
- Suppressing their own uncomfortable negative feelings
- Inserting themselves into an argument to try to calm everyone
- Going against their own feelings, beliefs, or values in the name of compromise
- Trying to distract everyone or play things down
Martyrs tend to feel personally attacked in an argument, which is why their gut response is to get either overly defensive, or quiet and miserable. Anything the other person says during the argument, the Martyr will take personally and feel deeply hurt and offended. Because of that, Martyrs feel like a victim, which makes the other person the perpetrator. This deflects all of the blame onto the “attacker,” giving the Martyr the moral high ground.
Because Martyrs feel so misunderstood and personally hurt in an argument, you’ll often hear them saying things like, “Why do you always make me the bad guy?” or “I guess you don’t love me anymore,” or “Why does no one appreciate me and all of the sacrifices I make?”
The Martyr’s go-to moves in an argument:
- Playing the victim
- Feeling misunderstood and attacked
- Nursing their hurt feelings and holding on to grudges
- Assuming the moral high ground
- Assigning blame elsewhere
Tyrants don’t shy away from an argument, and when triggered into one, they put on their boxing gloves and get ready for a fight. Once the anger is flowing, a Tyrant starts “seeing red” and can’t help but perceive everything the other person says or does as annoying, dumb, or flat-out wrong.
A Tyrant’s main objective during an argument is to prove that they’re right, which means the other person is automatically wrong. They’ll use any means necessary to prove the other person wrong, including interrupting them or criticizing/belittling them if they do get a chance to speak. Tyrants tend to have a mental log of all old grievances that they can bring up again during a fight, like a lawyer reading through an evidence file to make their case.
The Tyrant’s go-to moves in an argument:
- Deflecting blame by making the other person wrong
- Not letting others voice or complete thoughts
- One-upping the other person
- Criticizing, belittling, and patronizing
- Hurtling accusations and bringing up old grievances
A BETTER, HEALTHIER, MORE PRODUCTIVE WAY TO ENGAGE IN ARGUMENTS
It’s pretty clear that none of these 4 roles is particularly healthy or helpful.
Nothing productive comes out of an argument when the Tyrant is yelling, or the Avoider is shutting down, or the Martyr is playing the victim, or the Peacekeeper is appeasing everyone.
If you and/or the people in your life fall into any of these roles, you may not even believe it’s possible for an argument to be productive. I know I didn’t believe that for the longest time. I thought arguments were always terrible and pointless and never productive.
But I feel differently now.
As I’ve grown in self-awareness over the past several years and started to detach from my Peacekeeper role, I’ve actually found myself in more arguments, not fewer. But because I’ve found ways to argue productively, instead of reactively, I don’t see this as a bad thing.
Here are some rules for arguing (that I always *try* to remember) to make conflicts productive instead of destructive:
- Ask yourself and the other person, “What is this really about?” It’s usually not actually about the thing you’re fighting about, but about something deeper like a lack of respect, appreciation, support, etc.
- Look for solutions instead of reasons the other person is wrong. Care more about getting to the heart of the conflict resolving it than about being right.
- Take responsibility for your 50%. It’s never 100% the other person’s fault.
- Instead of planning the next thing you’re going to say, be willing to listen to the other person and try to understand where they’re coming from.
- Don’t use “always” or “never.” Statements like, “You always do this,” or “You never do that,” are unproductive and put the other person on the defensive.
- Stay present. When you’re tempted to walk away or mentally check out, stay, no matter how uncomfortable it is. There’s no such thing as a productive ending to a conflict if one person is MIA.
- Remember why you care about this person. We fight most often with the people we love (although it’s easy to forget that when we’re angry). Remind yourself that, while you’re annoyed in the moment, you still care about this person.
- Don’t rush to an ending too soon out of discomfort. Remind yourself that arguments aren’t always a bad thing, and they can lead to greater connection on the other side.
I’m not going to lie and say I no longer find conflict super uncomfortable, because I definitely do. I haven’t totally eradicated my inner Peacekeeper — I’ve just quieted her down a bit.
The biggest surprise I’ve found is that, when I follow these rules for arguing, I often find myself feeling closer to the person once the fight is over, because we worked through an issue together. That’s something the Peacekeeper in me never knew was possible!
Now I’d love to hear from you! When it comes to arguments, are you an Avoider, a Peacekeeper, a Martyr, a Tyrant, or a combination? Which of the “rules” for productive arguing are you willing to try out? Leave a comment to let me know!
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Kristen (& Rachel)
Love this article. It really put a lot in perspective. I did have a question. What about the people that get too overwhelmed in a situation and actually NEED that space to process emotions? I feel like I fall into multiple groups, and I definitely do some of those productive arguing techniques.
However, one thing I know, is that sometimes I REALLY need that space in order to sort through every thought and emotion running through my mind. This helps me focus, center myself and think (rationally – which is key!) about what I need to say and what the other person is trying to say. In the article I interpreted that under no circumstances is it okay to walk away, even if you need to give yourself a breather.
What are your thoughts? What about all those articles that say sometimes it’s good to take a short break when you’re having an argument?
Again, great article. Thanks for sharing!!!
Hey Allie! Really good question. I’m the kind of person who typically needs time to process things too, especially when I’m feeling emotionally overstimulated in an argument. So I’m definitely not against taking a short break during an argument if that’s genuinely helpful to you.
It’s all comes down to your intention — are you leaving the argument because you’re trying to avoid dealing with it, or simply because you need time to process? You’ll usually know in your gut what’s true for you in the moment. The reason I advised people to stay present during the argument is because true Avoiders will often walk away from the conversation and then never bring it up again, as if it never happened. That’s obviously not healthy or productive. But if you say, “I need some space to process. Can we talk about this again tomorrow?” that’s perfectly fine! Just make sure you DO come back to the topic once you’ve done your processing, so that you can find a way to resolve it instead of ignore it. Does that make sense?
It absolutely does! Thank you for your reply 🙂
How do you find out what your 50% contibution to the fracas actually is? Sometimes it seems like breathing is enough to get some people into anti and defensive…
I think I might be a Tyrant: it’s a role with a lot of nuance and tends to light up when agreements are broken and there’s a strong sense of being taken for granted. Fighting for visibility and basic courtesy – even if ‘respect’ is a step too ridiculous to be imagined.
Until I have enough in the suitcase to be able to walk away and be a strong Avoider, sure in the knowing I can make it and I don’t have to endure being manipulated by a vastly experienced Martyr with more resources than I have.
Friendly people say I’m aloof but easy to get along with (INTP) Others say I’m too snooty smart and need a quelling. Avoid when I can – Tyrant when I must.
So how might I recognise my 50% contribution – with a view to minimising aggro without turning into a hermit to protect delicate sensibilities?
Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!