How to Navigate Your Way Through an Argument

7 10 2011

Arguments are an inevitable part of any relationship and I don’t just mean romantic relationships. Arguments happen with family, friends, co-workers and even that one waiter at that one restaurant that one time.

The key to healthy, lasting relationships is to remember that arguments are not about winning. They are about resolving a conflict so that every party involved feels ok with it. Conflicts must be approached with a calm and clear head. Doing so requires getting all three of your brains aligned.

That’s right, I said 3 brains

According to the Triune Brain model, our brains consist of three parts: the reptilian brain, the paleomammalian brain and the neomammalian brain. The reptilian brain is responsible for our most basic animal instincts like aggression and territoriality. The paleomammalian brain gives us an emotional connection to certain social activities like sex and parenthood. The neomammalian brain is our rational brain and is responsible for higher level processes like language and planning.

Understanding Your Mind in an Argument


Our reptilian brain is the one that gets us into arguments in the first place. It’s what gives us the feeling of being attacked and it’s what gets us feeling defensive. For the most part, the days where we physically fight out our problems are over. But if we hear words that we deem as a verbal attack, our reptilian brain wakes up and gets us in alert mode.


It’s pretty clear what part our emotional brain is responsible for. Any feelings of anger, sadness, loss or need are due to the emotional brain.


The rational brain sounds like it would be the one to get us safely out of any disagreements. I mean, ‘rational’ is right there in the name. But really, it is the rational brain that gives rise to those “What are we even arguing about?” moments and perpetuates conflicts longer than they need to be.

The rational brain is dangerous because it justifies our emotions. But of course, emotions are not rational and so we just get wrapped up in empty logic. We continue to argue our point even after the initial emotion has faded away. There is no faster way to saying something you regret than to let your rational brain take these justifications too far.

How to Resolve the Argument

During conflicts, the three brains roll into one to form one giant fire-breathing arguing machine. The way to turn back from machine to a normal level-headed person is to deal with each brain separately.

1. Disengage the reptilian brain

You need to calm down those feelings of being attacked and getting defensive. Unfortunately, unless you’re a Zen master, this usually requires the passing of time. So take a break from the argument and come back when you’re not on edge.

2. Identify your emotions

Next we move onto the emotional brain. Here what’s important is finding out exactly which emotions you are experiencing. What’s tricky about this is that because your rational brain has been mucking around in there, messing things up, the emotions you think you’re feeling aren’t the ones actually affecting you.

Addressing your emotions separately from rationality requires a little meditation. If sitting like a pretzel and saying ohms aren’t your thing, try going for a walk or doing a menial, repetitive task. These take up just enough brain power to let your emotional brain bubble to the surface uncensored (as weird as it sounds, I like doing the dishes to meditate).

3. Let your rational brain be rational

Now that you’ve calmed down and know where you really stand in the disagreement, let your rational brain do what it does best: use it to organize this information into a solution. Communicate your newly discovered emotions to the other person with clarity, caution and sensitivity.

What You Can Do Right Now

Think about the last time you had an argument. What did you say? Would you go back and change that if you could? What were the emotions you felt? Do you still feel the same way?

If you successfully process this argument through your 3 brains, approach the person you were arguing with and see if you can kiss and make up.

Comment below and tell us how your three brains have been getting along.

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