When to Intervene in an Argument

You're hanging out with friends or colleagues when suddenly, an argument erupts. Things get heated and you're caught in the middle. What do you do? Read on for Modern Manners Guy's 3 tips for managing an intervention.

Richie Frieman
4-minute read

The majority of us have been in a situation where an argument ensues and we feel the need to intervene. As you probably know, watching two people yell at each other until they’re blue in the face leaves you feeling incredibly uncomfortable. As the innocent bystander in this car wreck, you have two options: step in or step away. 

After you consider your two options, and decide to go with the former one, the next question is, “How do I break it up?”

Before you shout, “Good luck with that!” check out my top 3 quick and dirty tips for how to properly intervene in and defuse an argument:

Tip #1: Timing is Everything

Knowing exactly when  it’s proper to intervene in an argument is key. It's all about surveying the situation at hand.  For one, you can’t assume you understand the level of passion of the participants if they're hurtling expletives back and forth.  However, even though you don’t have the passion to argue, you can have the timing to save the day.

Arguing is not necessarily a bad thing. Wait...hear me out. Arguing can in fact be healthy - it allows all the passion to come out, rather than festering. But you don't want things to escalate to the level of physical or over-the-top verbally abusive. That's when there needs to be an intervention.  You know things are growing intense when you examine a person’s body language. Are either (or both) getting red, starting to tear up, are they moving closer into each other's space? These are telltale signs that an argument may turn physical. 

Now is your time to step in and create space between them. To do this, gently and casually push back the person you are closer to in the argument. If the arguers are of different genders, always choose the person whose gender you match. You never want to shove or grab someone in the heat of an argument. Instead, use your body as a shield and speak calmly. Try stepping in, with your arms open and say, “Okay, okay, that’s enough. Come on, let’s take a breather.” You may need to improvise further, but this is a start.

Tip #2: Are You Choosing Sides?

Before intervening in an argument you have to ask yourself if you’re choosing sides. When you step into an argument, people tend to get defensive of the interruption. After all, they were just about to make their point when you (rudely to them, and kindly to everyone else) stepped in. Riiiiiight.

Before you part the unmannerly seas, always ask yourself whose side you are on, or better yet, whose side will you appear to be on when you intervene. Your goal should not be to get in the middle of the debate, but to get in the middle of them. Before intervening make sure that your stepping in will not create a bigger mess because one of the arguers feels you are now trying to shut them down or gang up on them. If you are actually on one person’s side, then when you do step in, pull that person aside and away from the argument. If you’re closer with one person, they will be more likely to listen to your voice of reason.

Tip #3: Nip it in the Bud Pronto

As I said in Tip #1, some arguments are healthy. But unless it’s a simple debate like, 'Which flavor ice cream is better?" you need to listen for buzz words that tend to tip a friendly argument over into a heated interaction. The particular buzz words happen to be four letter words. I don’t need to go into them, but when you hear one uttered, it’s time to nip the situation in the bud.

If someone has to revert to cursing, then their argument has usually made a wrong turn somewhere. Now, is the time to step in and maybe change the conversation to something lighter. Try interjecting some humor to calm the raging waters. “Okay, you two, are you really going to fight over what was a better 90s movie?” Or, “Here’s something to argue...Who sounds crazier between you two? I’ll answer – it’s a tie!”

When you do step in to intervene, take it as a heroic responsibility. You’re being brave and doing something others may not. However, the bottom line is that when it comes to intervening in an argument, it’s proper to remain neutral. Your focus is simply to remedy the situation as fast as possible with no one getting hurt (including yourself) in the process.  

For more tips on how good etiquette can help you get ahead in your professional life, check out my new book, Reply All...And Other Ways to Tank Your Career. Available now! 

Argument image courtesy of Shutterstock.