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Conversational Disagreements: In the Heat of the Moment, Try to Cool Down before You Explode!

April 09, 2021 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Typically, when Barbara and her beau drive in the car together, the conversation is sanguine and pleasant. Until one day recently. 

As they drove to the University at Albany, SUNY, campus, in a snowstorm for one of them to get the coronavirus vaccine (the other had already done so), another storm began to brew in their car. 

With her beau at the wheel, Barbara grew concerned about road conditions as she noticed that the two-lane highway merged into one lane and few snowplow trucks were working. 

It was at this point that the conversation took a nasty turn. It happened when he took one hand off the wheel for a bit. Barbara panicked. 

“You have to drive with two hands!” she insisted loudly. 

His response was equally swift and surprising for this Southern-raised gent. “That’s okay to say to me as long as I can criticize your driving,” he responded. 

Phew, she thought, and said out loud. “So, this is tit-for-tat?” 

She sat there thinking that they had clearly sunk to a new low from their usual respectful tones and getting along so well during the long coronavirus isolation. Many other couples—both married and not—were headed to splitsville or at least couple’s counseling.  

In the heat of the moment, their conversational disagreement continued when Barbara felt she just had to add with relish, “If we get hit, it will be me who doesn’t make it. I’m the one sitting in the passenger seat. I’ll have had my shot for naught, and you’ll go on your merry way.”    

Who can argue with the prospect of worry about death? Her dramatic segue had worked, and they eventually returned to a healthier banter. However, the seed had been planted for a 101-refresher course in how to have an adult conversational disagreement. 

Car Talk

Once back safely, Barbara told Margaret what transpired and asked for her advice. Margaret laughed and shared that she wasn’t the one to advise about disagreements in a car. “That’s where we used to have our worst arguments,” she said, referring to her late husband. “Once it grew so heated in midtown New York City that I got out of the car in the middle of the street and took a taxi.” They were in the city to help her youngest son, a student, move into his latest dump. 

We both love to analyze any situation, and this one was a doozy. What great fodder for a blog, we reasoned, with approval from the beau. We decided there had to be alternative ways to handle heated car talk and decided to do some research into how to cope with similar scenarios in the future. That was assuming we might have the time and discipline to think before opening our (big) mouths. 

This is the problem in most cases with disagreements.

  1. A statement is made that offends.
  2. The other person gets defensive. It’s our default position. They blurt out the wrong thing rather than taking time to plan a better way to state the point they’re trying to make.
  3. The conversation might then escalate into an emotional and snarky exchange. 

Here are some ideas how to have a mature disagreement. You decide if they might work: 

Do nothing, which is what Barbara remembers her mother doing with her fatherHow well would this work for each person? It’s the: “If I don’t like something that someone says, I smile and swallow it. In other words, I don’t spit out the words like a baby.” Maybe, this approach is great for the driver (her beau) but for Barbara it could have meant—and this is getting a bit dramatic—stressed—induced palpitations on her part. And in the worst case, if his one hand weren’t steady enough, they or she could have been seriously injured or dead! Maybe, it’s wise to check healthcare and life insurance policies in advance of setting out together in the car. Also, Barbara’s mother acted passively without the aggressive part that some do. Barbara prefers to be authentic and taught her daughters when they were teenagers to speak up rather than lose their voices as some young women do at that age. 

Channel Michelle Obama and go high when you want to go low: She might have said something to the effect, “Honey, you really might need that second hand on the wheel in case a driver gets too close or you skid. Just a thought.” How well would this work? While kind and thoughtful, why would anybody be willing to listen to driving instructions from some goody-goody when nothing seems to be happening, at least in the driver’s mind? We also seriously doubt Michelle would have been so sweet with Barack. She probably would have yelled, and he might have laughed with that wonderful toothy grin, which would have made matters worse. Who knows if they would have ever made it to their destination. 

Follow Margaret’s mother’s style. That would have meant screaming or shrieking, she thinks. How well would this work? Not at all since, if the driver were like Margaret’s father, he probably would have just closed his ears as he usually did in such cases. Eventually, her mother would have quieted down and resorted to the silent treatment. At least there would be quiet. Loud decibels only incite the other person we know and give everyone a headache. On to the next idea. 

Heed how our favorite TV and movie characters might handle this situation. Take Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison’s character from the TV series, Homeland. She was always the smartest person in the room, even if her extreme-at-times bipolar behavior caused huge concern on colleagues’ part and a death or two or three here and there. If having a manic episode, she most likely would have pulled out her gun, pointed it at the driver’s head and bluntly said, “Now drive with two hands on the wheel, or I’ll take the wheel and you’ll get stuffed in the trunk.” How well would this work? Probably very well in the short term but with consequences later. We really have no desire to become a double agent in Moscow—sorry for the spoiler. Talk about social distancing for the long haul. 

Go really high and ask the other why he doesn’t need his second hand as most driving instruction teaches after first Googling the proper way and sharing it? Googling at least gives the angry party a chance to calm down and form a cogent response. This is a two-parter and more complex. 

Part I: One Google explanation says, “As you steer your vehicle, you should never take either of your hands off the steering wheel. The push and pull method of turning the steering wheel allows you to safely rotate the steering wheel while keeping both hands in contact.” How well would this work? Not at all. Nobody likes a know-it-all who automatically refers to Google as a source for all matters, even if it was a teaching moment. 

Part II: This concerns info about engaging the one-handed driver in some personal driving history. Sounds promising for it gives each person the chance to exchange something fun about their past and how they learned to drive—or not. How well would this work? Good, if he had an interesting explanation. and she was open to listening and learning more about him. Bad, if it was purely habit with how he liked to drive and if he didn’t take the bait and switch gears to the past. 

Remember to use an “I” rather than “you” statement. This is one of the first lessons of marriage and couples counseling for those who have participated. Always put comments on you rather than another person. How well would this work? Perhaps, okay, if Barbara had framed the statement as, “I really am nervous with the weather. I am not trying to change your style but for now when the weather is bad.” It might be worth a try unless he came back with some macho-male response, “I’ve got this under control,” which likely would not have eased her angst. 

Block out the noise. That’s what those noise cancelling devices are for, shutting down the possibility of a civil discourse or argument. How well would this work? It can be misconstrued as rude if the other person is upset and you suddenly put on your earphones while saying, “Hey, they’re playing my favorite tune.” If the other person is still throwing a tirade, smile and nod stupidly to the beat if you choose as you sit there looking at their lips moving. When we were kids, we’d stick our fingers in our ears when we didn’t want to hear something unpleasant and make a stupid noise to block what the person was saying. So, why act like a baby now? Our earphone suggestion is the adult version of that same act. 

What the Experts Might Say

Since we weren’t satisfied with the options we came up with, we did some more digging and found a column in the New York Times newspaper, “How to Have a Disagreement Like an Adult, According to Deepak Chopra” written by Nicole Pajer (Sept. 30, 2020). It explains the approach of Chopra, the wellness and meditation star and author of many books, including a long list of bestsellers. 

Chopra terms a disagreement “a clash of egos.” Both sides want to be right, and in such cases, you can’t have two winners. He advises that it’s better to change your mindset to think about the disagreement as a way to start negotiating if confronted. Stop, take a breath, smile and make a choice. Sometimes, it’s also better to forgive and stop judging someone’s behavior or make a joke or very dramatic statement and move on. Barbara tried to do so but it backfired. 

Even better, we think, might be to talk over the topic of disagreements, accept that you have different styles at times, know what your hot button topics are whether driving, cleaning up or spending money. Definitely avoid going tit-for-tat or using the disagreement as a jumping off point for an attack when he says, “I can’t believe you leave dirty dishes in the sink so often.” And you blurt out, “And what about how you never take out the garbage!” This is just too much of those sweeping generalizations we’re never supposed to use, as well as playing dirty, especially since few like dirty dishes or dirty garbage sitting around. 

We must try to be steadfast in our resolve to behave like capable, caring adults, especially during these stressful pandemic times. Come up with a list; we are great at making lists. Have a plan to stop a discussion respectfully, especially when it hits a low and tempers start to rise. Better yet, maybe consider not driving together or keeping those noise cancelling earbuds nearby when you do.

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