How to Prevent Arguments

5 Warning Lights That Tell You a Conversation’s Going Wrong


In the late 1960’s, a series of catastrophic plane crashes occurred without any apparent awareness of danger on the part of the pilots. In response, the aviation industry introduced an enhanced warning system to alert pilots to danger. For example, if terrain rises significantly within 2,000 feet of the aircraft due to a mountain range, a red warning light flashes and an automated voice will say, ‘Terrain! Terrain!’ The new system improved safety performance overnight.

This set me thinking about an equivalent warning system in the conversational world. While we can’t calculate that we are 2,000 feet from a dispute, we can trigger an internal alert that says, ‘Miscommunication! Miscommunication!’ or, ‘Argument! Argument!’ By noticing and attending to the warning lights in a conversation as they appear – not as an after-thought – we can change the direction of a problematic conversation before things get worse.

Here are five warning lights to look out for.


  1. Blamestorming – when the accusations and criticisms are starting to fly and you notice you’re beginning to sound alarmingly self-righteous. You won’t be interested in sharing responsibility, taking a balanced view or finding a pragmatic solution. You’ll use language like ‘you always’ and ‘you never’, and try to make yourself look like the innocent victim by loading the blame for an issue or problem on someone else’s shoulders.

How can you tell when you’re Blamestorming? You’ll find yourself being more committed to apportioning blame than to resolving the issue.


  1. Escalation – when the temperature is starting to rise and your conversation seems to have become all about ‘winning’, regardless of the cost. Escalation is what happens when your emotions take over. You’ll find yourself making wild and exaggerated claims, dragging up the past, drawing below-the-belt comparisons and making threats you’re likely to regret later. You may find yourself saying at the top of your voice, ‘Stop shouting!’, to which the other person may bellow, ‘I’m not shouting!’

How can you tell when you’re Escalating? You’ll notice the intensity of an argument increasing FAST.


  1. Yes, But … – when someone dismisses your solutions because they want to be heard, or brushes aside your opinions which don’t match theirs. Many of us are addicted to giving our point of view or pearl of wisdom, whether the other person wants to hear it or not. Examples would be the manager who gets his sense of worth from having an answer to every problem, or the parent who feels compelled to offer her worldly advice to her teenager, even though she knows it will fall on deaf ears. In doing so, we forget to listen or to consider what they actually need.

How can you tell when you’re in Yes, But …? The short answer is that you’ll notice yourself saying it.


  1. Dominatricks – when a conversation’s flow and rhythm starts to fall apart because you’re trying to take control and dominate. You’ll have spotted the signs of Dominatricks if you’ve noticed that you’re finishing each other’s sentences: that one or other of you is trying to drive the conversation on their terms, not listening to what’s being said and not allowing space for the other’s opinion or disagreement.

How can you tell when you’re in Dominatricks? It feels competitive – you’ll notice you’re interrupting the person you’re speaking with and not taking time to pause, listen and reflect.


  1. Mixed Messages – when you’re making assumptions and drawing conclusions that are out of step with reality, or when you’re speaking at cross-purposes. Like trains that pass in opposite directions, some conversations can feel as though you’re on a different track going in the opposite direction to the other person. It might be that:

–       The context isn’t clear

–       You’re not addressing the sub-text of the conversation

–       You’re swapping preconceived ideas or opinions rather than listening

–       You’re replying to what you thought they said rather than what they actually said.

How can you tell when you’re in Mixed Messages? You feel puzzled or surprised about how a conversation seems to be unfolding or the conversation you’re having feels as if it’s somehow out of sync.


Dr John Gottman and Dr Bob Levenson are world-leading experts on relationship analysis and the characteristics of marital stability. During a study in 1983, they discovered that in 96 per cent of cases, the way people handled the first three minutes of a conflict discussion determined how it would go for its duration. So what can you do differently? Here are five tips:

  1. Pay attention to the pace and rhythm of the conversation. When you’re in Dominatricks, the pace will accelerate, there are no pauses between your speaking and your listening deteriorates. There’s a subtle change in context: it becomes more about winning and being right than hearing each other and finding agreement or a solution. When you notice this happening, consciously slow the speed of the conversation down.
  2. If an interaction is moving into Escalation, press the STOP! button. Create some distance from it, even for a minute or two. Tell the other person you need to go to the bathroom, get some air or water. It takes the heat out of the situation and gives you time to regain your center of gravity.
  3. When you notice you’re in Blamestorming, ask yourself what’s needed rather than looking to prove why you’re right. This immediately changes the direction of your thinking, and the tone of the conversation.
  4. If you hear someone saying ‘Yes, But…’ two or three times, try a different approach because your advice isn’t making a difference. Listen to what they’re saying, repeat back what they’ve said so they know you’ve heard them, or ask what they need from you.
  5. If you think you’re in Mixed Messages, wind the conversation back to check that you’re both clear about what’s being discussed and that you understand each other, or to ascertain what you’re both really trying to say.

It’s important to remember that disagreements are a healthy part of any relationship, but when they get out of control they can become destructive. Every time you notice a warning light, you have a choice point. You can continue on the same course or change direction.



Gottman, J. and Silver, N., The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1999.


 See here for the original article, first published on the Psychology Today website. 





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