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The 20-Minute Fight: How to Stop an Argument Quickly

Remember this the next time you have a fight with your wife or husband.

There is never an ideal time to have an argument. But one of the worst cases is when a fight starts up and there’s only a small window of time to discuss it. Early morning before it’s time to get out the door. Saturday afternoon just before the in-laws come over. You want to end the argument so you don’t spend the rest of the day thinking about it and steeping in resentment. But that’s not an easy thing to do when the clock is ticking.

So how do you reach an agreement when time is not on your side? We set a time limit — 20 minutes — and asked a variety of experts for their approach. It’s not easy. But the key is to use forward thinking, good dose of empathy, and shut your mouth when a decision has been reached. Most importantly: Go into the argument understanding what the goals are and, like Tony Stark, work towards that endgame. Here’s how to work out your grievances on the clock.

Empathize and Anticipate.

Ending an argument quickly requires forward thinking. So, once it begins, bust out your inner Dr. Strange and consider how this dispute will play out: what are your partners goals? What are their reservations? What are their main points? When you can anticipate these and work on your responses, says Lance J. Robinson, a practicing criminal defense lawyer in New Orleans, you’ll avoid wasting time on points that won’t persuade or influence them. “The best way to do this is to restate, in your own words, what the other person is telling you they need, want or believe,” he says. Once you do that, ask if you’re understanding them correctly. “It might seem like a waste of time, but it will make things move more quickly because you’ll save precious minutes by avoiding misunderstandings.”

Understand Everyone’s Needs

You’ve got your needs. Your partner has theirs. But don’t forget that your relationship has needs, too. Focusing on your needs with respect to its needs can save time and help you distill your disagreement down to a much more workable size. “Needs change depending on the context of the situation,” says George Ball, Psy. D., L.P., Licensed Clinical Psychologist. “In order to resolve a conflict in such a short amount of time, the immediate needs must be prioritized and presented.” In other words: think about the endgame “Does the situation call for an urgent behavioral change? Space? Once your immediate needs are on the table, you can problem solve more efficiently.”

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Negotiate and Bargain.

A little open-mindedness and creativity can go a long way in a short argument. Instead of siphoning all your energy into being the last one standing, focus on being the first one innovating. “You might not have been up for cooking, but it was your turn to get dinner. Maybe that’s what the argument was about,” offers Aimee Daramus, Psy. D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist. “It’s okay to set the boundary: I’m not cooking. But then offer to pick up something you both like, or pay for delivery out of your fun money.” Darmus’ point: In this scenario, by offering options, you fulfilled your responsibility, just in a different way. “If the argument stems from one person’s responsibility, think of other ways to fulfill it, and be open to different ways of having those needs met,” she adds. “There are plenty of different ways to the same goal.”

Take a Clue from the Time Lord

This one comes courtesy of the Time Lord. “There’s a great episode of Doctor Who where the doctor erased the memories of a negotiating team so that nobody knew what side they were on,” says Daramus. “This resulted in the negotiation of a fair argument. If both people agree to this technique, it means you know you can count on each other.” In other words, try solving your partner’s problem, then ask your partner what he or she wants to do about yours. Daramus offers a scenario. Let’s say you’ve only got one car, and you both need to use it. The negotiation isn’t about the goal of using the car. It’s about the goal of getting somewhere. “So, you can consider how you would get your partner to where he or she wanted to be, while he or she does the same for you,” she says. “Maybe you offer the use of the car, and your partner agrees to pay for an Uber. Each person will come out of the argument feeling validated.”

Don’t Confuse Solutions and Emotions

What’s more important: emotions or solutions. In a 20-minute argument the answer is a paradox: both, and neither. According to Daramus, if you want the argument to be over quickly, with a real solution, it’s not useful to judge whether practical issues or emotions are more important “You have to choose between winning the argument and protecting the relationship,” she says. Think: How can the task get done and the emotional needs get satisfied for now? Maybe the task can wait until morning so you can spend time chilling and talking about the emotional needs. Or maybe the task gets done right away, and you agree on a time to listen later. “The details are less important than the goal of shifting from a ‘winning’ mindset to a ‘win-win’ mindset,” she says.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Try to Get the Final Word

When a solution is reached, resist the temptation to say something else. Doing so — especially for the sake of getting the last word in — is like taking a blowtorch to a fire you just put out. “I can’t tell you how many couples struggle to move on once a resolution is agreed upon,” says Ball. “Human beings will talk until they feel like they’ve been heard. This is why trust is so important in arguments.” If you arrive at the end of the conversation, and a resolution is in sight, you have to trust that the resolution will be implemented. And then stop talking about it. “Even with the best intentions, you’re only setting yourself up to derail the progress you just made”