How to Stop the Arguing (Before It Even Starts): The Traffic Light Tool

How to Stop the Arguing Before It Even Starts: The Traffic Light Tool

How to Stop the Arguing (Before It Even Starts): The Traffic Light Tool

Tara Thomas

Hey, I'm Tara, relationship coach & couples therapist.

I'm definitely a weirdo, and have never traveled a conventional path-
It sucks because the world isn't designed for misfits, sometimes it's myself I'm rebelling against, and being a weirdo can be lonely.

I swear a lot, think life is too short to waste on drama & bullshit, and dream of a world where we ALL belong.

Tara Thomas

Hey, I'm Tara, relationship coach & couples therapist. I'm definitely a weirdo, and have never traveled a conventional path- It sucks because the world isn't designed for misfits, sometimes it's myself I'm rebelling against, and being a weirdo can be lonely. I swear a lot, think life is too short...

We've all been there before, a spicy conversation leads to escalating tensions and suddenly IT'S ON. This tool is designed to help you increase self awareness, handle emotional stress, and learn how to stop the arguing when conversations get spicy.

Table of Contents

    We've all been there before, a spicy conversation leads to escalating tensions and suddenly IT'S ON.

    Whether you call it being overwhelmed, pissed off, shut down, or some other flavour of "too much", you're beyond the point of no return. Chasing chats when you're in this state is worse than unproductive, it damages your connection with your partner/s, and over time may lead to chronic stress or illness.

    This mashup of the wisdom of Kenny Rogers & the colour coding of traffic lights shows how to stop the arguing by knowing when to... well, you know how it goes.

    Why It's Important to Stop the Arguing

    I frequently see couples launching into difficult conversations without considering each other’s mental, emotional, or physical capacity. Despite escalating emotions they pursue the topic (wanting resolution)... the drama cycle kicks in... and here we fucking go again.

    They think resolving the issue is how to stop the arguing, but don't realise it's their approach that's the problem.

    When emotions are escalating;

    Your emotions → trigger a response in your body which → razzes or relaxes your nervous system → and effects your thoughts and ability to act.

    In contrast, when you learn how to stop the arguing (before it even starts) you can bring your best selves to those spicy conversations.

    A person looking stressed and their head is exploding
    Photo by alphaspirit from Getty Images

    How Arguing Effects Your Nervous System

    Your brain continually monitors your environment and adjusts the way your body uses energy so you can respond. There's a couple of key players that are important here;

    The Amygdala - 

    Known by Bessel Van der Kolk as the brains 'smoke alarm', the amygdala monitors for danger. That assessment happens in an instant, before we have the chance for rational thought.

    Some of us have an amygdala that is dialed up (think: smoke alarm goes off when a crumb gets smoky in the toaster), and some of us have an amygdala that is dialed down (think: house is burning but no alarm).

    Amygdala Hijack -

    Depending on your history with conflict, your amygdala may assess a difficult conversation as dangerous.

    At this point you'll experience what Dan Goleman calls "amygdala hijack"- an emotional response that is disproportionate to the actual moment because your feelings, thoughts, & actions are driven by a historical criteria for action. Like, you're responding to the present informed by your past.

    Nervous System Accelerator & Brake-

    It's helpful to imagine your nervous system having an 'accelerator' and a 'brake'. The accelerator gets you razzed, speeds your body up,  & makes energy available. In contrast, the 'brake' slows your body down & saves energy.

    Dr Mona DeKoven Fishbane writes in her book Loving With the Brain in Mind: Neurobiology and Couple Therapy

    "The subcortical, physiological experience of emotion is much faster than our cortical awareness, which catches up and names the feeling."

    That's a fancy way of saying that the accelerator & brake aren't manually controlled; they automatically respond to your emotions faster than rational thought. That means your nervous system is razzing or relaxing BEFORE you decide what you think. Another way of saying that is your thoughts & feelings are GENERATED by your nervous system response.

    Not knowing how to stop the arguing with your partner/s is often stressful, sometimes triggers strong nervous system response, and is almost always objectively shit.

    Stress & Spicy Conversations

    Spicy conversations (or even thinking about them!) can be interpreted by your body & brain as a stressful event. Your nervous system will respond to prepare you for that event in line with your previous experiences of conflict. For some of us that means getting revved up (more energy, faster heart rate), for others it might mean putting on the brakes (less energy, slowing down), and for still others it might be a combo of both.

    That means that at a certain intensity, frequency, or duration of tricky chats, one or both of you will get maxed out. The heart of how to stop the arguing is to remember that when you're maxed out your brain is on autopilot and you don't get to choose your thoughts, feelings, or actions.

    So the first step to learning how to stop the arguing, is to tune into what's happening in your body.

    The level where stress becomes a problem is different for every single one of us, and it can even change for each of us at different times. I might handle stress well today (I'm happy, it's sunny, I've taken ADHD meds, and I had great sleep) versus last Tuesday (when my energy crashed, I felt baaaad, and had the weirds). It's those bad/weird days where I'm much more likely not to have the capacity to remember how to stop the arguing, and to go down the path of an unproductive & difficult conversation.

    Stress becomes an issue in relationships when one or more partner/s;

    • ignore their body's signals to stop or rest
    • experience a stressful situation for too long
    • have stressful events happen too frequently
    • experience a stressful event that's too high in intensity
    • can't relax in between (like thinking about a stressful situation even though they're not in it)
    • doesn't process that stress to return to their baseline, or
    • doesn't engage (and/or care about) how to stop the arguing.

    How to Stop the Arguing With the Traffic Light Tool

    A traffic light with a blue sky & cloud background.
    Photo by AGrigorjeva from Getty Images

    I use a traffic light tool to help partner/s learn how to manage emotions, communicate feels, and learn how to stop the arguing.

    In this tool;

    • Red Light= Survival Mode [Stop!]
    • Yellow Light= Reactive Mode [Slow The Fuck Down]
    • Green Light= Proactive Mode [Play On]

    This tool's designed to increase self awareness, practice how to manage emotional responses, and prevent difficult conversations from turning into conflict or gridlock.

    1. Play On (Green Light)

    The flip side wisdom to how to stop the arguing is knowing when to keep going!

    Weirdly Kenny Rogers doesn't really address that... so I guess in the absence of holding, folding, walking or running you just keep on playing? IMHO when it comes to cards & conversations it's good to know when to do what.

    When you’re feeling resilient, relaxed, and resourceful, I describe this as being in Green Mode. This mode is symbolised by a green traffic light which means "Play On". In this mode it's easy to identify your feels, manage emotional changes, and be creative, collaborative, and proactive with your partner/s.

    For some people this feels good;

    Relaxed muscles, heart rate in normal range, easy breathing, thoughts that are clear & calm.

    Some of us don't ever really access this state though, and have a bit of background tension or anxiety all or most of the time. Whichever it is for you, that's okay. Learning how to stop the arguing requires practicing awareness of what this state feels like for you.

    If you were to finish this sentence  “ I know I'm in Green Mode when I…” what would you say?

    A person walking through a field of shoulder high green plants
    Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

    2. When to Hold Them (Green→Yellow Light)

    I reckon one of the hardest things relationally is knowing when to Hold Them.

    You've a bone to pick, a request to make, questions, comments, or feedback, and you want it sorted. Like, now.

    Sustainable relationships require a more discerning approach than "say it as you see it", and this model helps to make your choice. For example, we might feel green, but still have limited capacity for managing emotions. Those days where you feel good, but you've got juuuuuust enough juice left to make it to bed. Ya know?

    Holding Them means having the wisdom to know that today's not the day. Sometimes how to stop the arguing is just deciding not to even start the conversation.

    Here's some key considerations;

    • How is your partner/s feeling?
    • What are your feels?
    • Do you have time, energy, and attention for this now?

    Holding them's a decision you make when;

    • you and your partner are in Green Mode, but you want to prioritise something else (like fun, pleasure, rest, or other things!)
    • you're in Green Mode but you think the conversation's bigger than you can do today
    • one or more of you is in Yellow Mode

    If you were to finish this sentence “ I know I Should Hold Them when I…” what would you say?

    A person walking in front of a yellow wall.
    Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash

    3. When to Fold Them (Yellow Light)

    Okay, changed my mind... knowing when to fold them is way harder!

    Sometimes you get it wrong. You start a spicy chat, then notice you're "yellow" and need to make an early decision to postpone your talk til later. This isn't even HOW to stop the arguing, it's WHEN!

    This happens in my house on the regular- we think we're good, then start to work out a thing only for one of us to realise they're maxed out. We say something like "wait, I don't actually have capacity for this, can we raincheck?"

    When it feels like shits starting to get to you, I describe this as being in Yellow Mode. It's symbolised by a yellow traffic light which means "slow the fuck down"!

    For some people that feels like low key razzing up; Heart rate increasing, breath getting faster, thoughts more combative.

    Others might feel like they start shutting down or numbing out when they're in Yellow Mode. Their body gets slower and their thoughts less clear. Whichever it is for you, that's okay.

    If you were to finish this sentence “ I know I'm in Yellow Mode when I…” what would you say?

    4. When to Walk Away (Yellow→Red Light)

    Walking Away is the strategy when you've missed the signals to Hold or Fold, and you or your partner/s are heading into the red zone.

    For a while, this might be where you operate while you're getting more skilled at how to stop the arguing . Initially it's easier or more obvious to notice this state, but it's also harder to take appropriate action this late in the game.

    Walking Away is a decision that you make when;

    • one or both of you are headed for Red
    • you need a break, now
    • your conversation partner is acting in bad faith

    Walking away means having the wisdom to cut your losses, and manage your shit instead of getting sucked into the drama.

    This might feel similar to Green Yellow.

    It's often harder to access this information because in these phases, our nervous system is making automatic decisions about whether to apply the brake, the accelerator, or both. That means we're not able to process emotions or think clearly in the moment. The process for how to stop the arguing at this stage is simple: take a break & time apart.

    If you were to finish this sentence “ I know I Should Walk Away when I…” what would you say?

    A silhouette of a person wearing a hoodie in front of a red smoke background
    Photo by Eli Meshau on Unsplash

    5. When to Run (Red Light)

    This is the danger zone, where relationships deteriorate, nervous systems dysregulate, and everything turns to shit.

    Running is a last resort, but it might not happen at that pace (or at all). This option is NOT how to stop the arguing, it's more about limiting the damage.

    Red Mode is symbolised by a red traffic light which means "Stop"!

    I've described this as "When to Run" because it's important when you're in this mode to be able to leave the situation and go somewhere you can rest & reset.

    Your personal response will depend on your go-to fear response (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn), and it will also be context dependent. You know? Like it depends on the situation & the day.

    Don't worry too much about identifying it up front - this is an ongoing enquiry into what is happening for you in any given moment.

    If you were to finish this sentence “ I know I'm in Red Mode when I…” what would you say?

    6. What This Isn't

    There's a damaging dynamic in relationships where one partner believes that they're the logical & rational partner, while the other is the emotional (and irrational) one.

    I've spoken about this in more detail here. This partner is likely to weaponise the structures for how to stop the arguing by positioning themselves as always being in Green Mode, and their partner as dysregulated or Red.

    It's bullshit that anyone is purely logical & rational!

    We're ALL emotionally driven, and just because someone doesn't cry or get escalated doesn't mean that;

    • a) they are clearer thinkers (more 'rational')
    • b) they are better decision makers, nor
    • c) that theyre not actually having an emotional response!

    If you're reading this and recognising yourself, you might want to check that you're not just being a dick. If you are, a large part of YOU learning how to stop the arguing is to develop your emotional intelligence skills.

    Developing an Action Plan

    This is an ongoing experiment, not a one-and-done. That means that over time as you develop your skills in this area you'll become more discerning; you'll notice more data, and become aware of even finer distinctions within & between modes.

    As you get curious with yourself & your partner/s you can develop an iterative action plan for how to stop the arguing that includes;

    1. My traffic lights; signals, messages & behaviour
    2. Their traffic lights; signals, messages, & behaviour
    3. Agreements; agreements about taking time outs, scheduling conversations,
    4. Shortcuts; how you'll communicate modes with each other
    5. Emotional hygiene; how you manage stress proactively
    6. Strategies for emotional first-aid; specific activities to help calm your mind & body
    7. Requests for emotional first-aid; specific activities your partner can do to help calm your mind & body
    8. Their strategies for emotional first-aid; specific activities they do to calm their mind & body
    9. Their requests for emotional first-aid; specific activities you do to help calm your partner/s' mind & body

     

    You can do that by talking it through with your partner/s using the headings above to guide you. I've also put together a beautiful workbook you can use to step through the process which you can purchase below.

    How to Stop the Arguing Workbook

    The How to Stop the Arguing Workbook has a fully illustrated explanation of the Traffic Light System, PLUS beautifully designed worksheets with reflection questions, space to make notes, and summary sheets that you can print for easy reference for you & your partner.
    This digital purchase includes the workbook in the following formats;

    1. Full colour eBook + worksheets
    2. Minimalist version + worksheets - dyslexia & printer friendly (B&W & no images)
    3. Worksheets only - colour
    4. Worksheets only - B&W + no images