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In Arguments, Sometimes Progress is a Step Backward

When you’re at the edge of the argument cliff, it isn’t courageous to step off. It’s foolishness. Courage is taking your destiny in your hands and backing up.

Sometimes, as an argument begins to unfold in front of you, you see what is about to happen. You see the cliff in front of you before you take your next step.

I call this moment your “choice point.” It’s the moment you choose to fight. It’s the moment you can still choose your words with care because you haven’t been emotionally hijacked by the conflict yet. It’s the moment you can choose to step off the cliff and escalate the argument or…step backward.

When you’re at the edge of a cliff, sometimes progress is a step backward. Someone said this before me but I’ve never found the source of this wisdom. It doesn’t diminish the value of the point.

We have this notion when we’re fighting that stepping backward is cowardly or shameful or a failure of some kind. But the real failure is stepping off the cliff and plummeting to certain destruction.

Here are some things you can say when you realize you’re at the edge of a cliff. Adapt them so they sound and feel right coming out of your own mouth.

    • Let’s back up. This conversation took a wrong turn and I want us to get back on track.
    • I think we’re headed into a mess. Let’s back up.
    • I’ve just realized I’ve gotten swept up in a very unhelpful way. Give me a moment so that I can back up and try to get it right.
    • I think this conversation just turned into an argument. I want to turn it back into a conversation. What can we do?
    • My words from a moment ago were unfair and contributed to turning this conversation into an argument. I’d appreciate the chance to step backward and find a better way to respond.

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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