Get Some Emotional Distance in an Argument

October 19, 2019

Are you being attacked by a bear? No. You’re just arguing with your uncle on Facebook. The comments fly fast and furious.

In conflict situations, writes professional mediator Teresa Frisbie in a 2018 article, our bodies often react like we’re being physically threatened by a predator when in reality we might be having a disagreement about politics or the dishes or our favorite movie.

The roots of the confusion go back to our early history when danger came from every direction. But as human lives have grown more complex and multi-faceted, we still often default to very simplistic fight, flight, or freeze reactions during conflicts in our everyday lives. “The brain perceives social threat similarly to how it senses physical threat,” Frisbie writes.

And in these polarized times, we may encounter intense social threats when we glance at the news or scan our Facebook or Twitter feed—anytime we encounter someone voicing an opinion that challenges our identity and worldview. One response could be to disengage from those debates altogether, lest we get too worked up and flip our lid. That might help keep our blood pressure down, but it may also prevent us from understanding other points of view.

Recent research suggests a different approach, a skill that may actually help us keep a level head at times of conflict and disagreement. It’s called self-distancing. Instead of creating some distance from a perceived adversary, self-distancing actually encourages us to get some distance from ourselves.

How does it work? The main trick involves shifting your perspective on a situation from the first person to the second- or third-person. For example, if your name is Bob, instead of asking, “Why do I feel this way?” you can instead ask, “Why does Bob feel this way?”

That might sound odd, but research suggests it can help you effectively regulate your emotions and keep your cool in challenging situations. There’s a reason we’re often better at giving advice to our friends and colleagues than to ourselves—our calmer emotional state and distance from the problem allows us to reason things through in a way that we often can’t when it’s personal. Managing your feelings can help you constructively respond to perceived threats and worries.

“The first prong of self-distancing is calming yourself down,” says Frisbie, who serves as director of the Dispute Resolution Program at Loyola University’s School of Law. This, in turn, can help calm your antagonists—which can open the door to resolving the conflict.

The Benefits of Getting Some Distance

University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross has studied the impact of self-distancing on reasoning, attitudes, and behaviors—and has found that all three can be enhanced by encouraging individuals to create psychological distance from their problems.

In one paper, originally published in 2011, Kross and co-researcher Igor Grossman used the backdrop of the Great Recession to examine whether self-distancing would improve the reasoning skills of college seniors and recent graduates facing a dire job market.

They specifically picked senior students and recent graduates who weren’t successful in obtaining a job post-graduation and asked them about how the recession would influence their future careers.

The participants were told to “take a few minutes to think about how the current economic climate will impact you personally,” and then were asked to explain how the recession would affect their careers from either an “immersed perspective”—such as imagining the “events unfolding before your own eyes as if you were right there”—or from a “distanced perspective,” which would involve imagining the “events unfolding as if you were a distant observer.”

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