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Ask Yourself This Kind of Question When an Argument Rattles You

When a difficult conversation rattles you, using a centering question can help you get your balance back. Here are favorite centering questions I share with my clients, along with guidelines for developing your own.

Centering questions are simple yet powerful questions that focus your attention and help you keep calm in a difficult conversation. They are a mental device for interrupting thoughts and emotions that are throwing you off your game and preventing you from thinking and communicating clearly.

You use them with yourself; they’re questions you ask yourself when you’re in the middle of a difficult conversation that’s knocked you off balance. I’ve used centering questions in my own life for decades and frequently teach them to my clients.

Why centering questions work

When you’re rattled by a difficult conversation or situation, there’s ample evidence that certain strategies help you recover more effectively than others.

For example, feeling rattled causes brief or extended emotional overwhelm or flooding. Strategies that disrupt or distract you at those times help you avoid a full emotional hijacking.

Psychological distance is the mental distance you create by detaching from what you’re experiencing and stepping outside yourself in your mind’s eye. Strategies that contribute to psychological distancing help with emotional self-regulation, decision making, and problem solving.

Cognitive reappraisal is a method for changing your emotional response by reinterpreting your perception of what’s happening. Strategies that help with cognitive reappraisal help you recover from being rattled, even in the middle of the conversation that threw you in the first place.

Choice points are the moments in a difficult conversation when you face a fork in the road. One fork leads downhill, the other to progress. Choice points can appear so fleetingly that you may not notice them quickly enough to make a conscious decision — or you may not notice them at all. Strategies that help you stay centered enough to notice and intentionally act on choice points make the difference between conversations that end badly and those that lead somewhere useful.

An effective centering question helps you gain psychological distance, engage in cognitive reappraisal, notice choice points, and shake off that rattled feeling.

Some of my favorite centering questions

Follow the links for more information on each question:

  • What would love do now? This is a question that invites your kind and loving self to step forward. It’s particularly useful when you’re feeling churlish (I used this one with myself in a recent set of frustratingly circular conversations with an insurance company).
  • It’s real, but is it true? This question pauses you mid-reaction and opens the possibility that the circumstances right in front of you may not really be the true source of your discomfort.
  • What else could this be? Shannon Alder, author of several books on questions, has said, “Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean’?” This centering question is particularly useful when someone says or does something that surprises you in a bad way.
  • What’s the next right thing? When you’re rattled enough that you can’t think straight, this question can help. Instead of having to figure out everything you need to know, understand, say, or do, all you have to do is figure out a single sentence or action — the very next one.
  • What is the problem we’re trying to solve here? This question is particularly useful when you’re frustrated by a difficult conversation going in circles. It’s a good one to ask out loud, too, because when everyone answers it, you may discover you’re not all on the same page.
  • When I’m 90, will this have mattered? This question is a litmus test, inviting you to decide whether or not continuing an argument is worth it. It’s particularly useful for pressing your pause button during bickering.

Using your centering question effectively

Centering questions work best in these two conflict situations:

1. You notice yourself reacting strongly to someone’s words or actions.

A “hot face,” shaking, noticeably beating heart, shallow and rapid breathing, tears, and clenched teeth are common physiological signals that you’re getting emotionally flooded. You may experience one, some, or none of those; your own physiological early alerts may be different.

When you experience one of your early alerts, use your centering question immediately. Its job is to help you avoid emotional flooding by giving your brain a task it wants to work on.

2. You’ve taken a break to catch your breath and figure out what to do next. I’ve long preached the value of taking a break when you’re rattled. But then what? It’s easy to take a break and still get swept up by replaying what happened, venting, or other habit that increases rumination but does little to help you calm down.

When you find yourself ruminating, disrupt it with your centering question. Give your mind something else to focus on and you will begin to feel less rattled.

Does it have to be in the form of a question?

No, it doesn’t. I’ve had clients choose statements they recite to themselves when they’re rattled. But there’s some evidence that a question may be more beneficial than a statement.

Questions trigger a mental reflex called “instinctive elaboration.” Our brains seem to be so captivated by questions that it’s hard to think about anything but the question.

So the benefit doesn’t come from the sentence itself, be it statement or question. Benefit comes from what the brain does with it. Reciting a statement may briefly distract you (unless you keep repeating it like a mantra), and that may not be enough.

Asking yourself a powerful question, though, makes your brain want to pursue an answer — and that’s the goal of this technique.

Can I have more than one centering question?

You’re the driver here. Experiment with several questions and see which one(s) serve you most powerfully.

Some of my clients report that they find a single centering question that’s so powerful they don’t want anything else. Others report that they find it helpful to identify a new centering question after a while, as though one gets stale over time. There’s no hard and fast rule here.

Developing your own centering question

If none of the above centering questions speak to you, you can still use the idea by developing your own. Here are three guidelines I like to share with my clients:

  • Choose a question that will stop you in your tracks. The best centering questions inspire your brain to do pithy work without a lot of prompting. Think about a quote you love and turn it into a question. Or consider questions a mentor or trusted friend often asks.
  • Keep it short and simple. If it’s too cumbersome to remember easily, it can’t help you when you need it most.
  • Don’t fret over the perfect question. Pick something, try it when you’re rattled, then adapt, adopt or discard it.

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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