Some people disagree, criticize, interrupt, and stir up conflict whenever they can. If this describes someone in your life, you’ll probably need a lot of patience and also a few new skills to avoid getting sucked into toxic interactions. Communicating with an argumentative, antagonistic person can be very frustrating.
This article will help you better understand people who purposefully instigate conflict with others. You’ll also pick up some tips to help you deal with them.
- Reasons why
- How to deal with someone who challenges everything you say
- Signs of argumentative people
Since many people bend over backward to avoid conflict, it can be hard to understand why anyone would intentionally seek it out. Being overly adversarial is often a defense mechanism that people use when they’re insecure or feel the need to compete with you. People who are quick to start arguments and cause conflicts are sometimes said to have an aggressive, argumentative, or oppositional conversation style.
This kind of behavior usually comes from a person’s subconscious need to be right, prove themselves, or one-up you. While it often feels personal, it usually isn’t. It may be something they do with everyone, or they may only do it with people who make them feel threatened or insecure.
If someone in your life has an adversarial or oppositional conversation style, it’s probably emotionally draining to interact with them. If avoiding them isn’t an option, there are ways to change the tone of a negative interaction or make it harder for them to argue.
Below are 8 ways to deal with someone who challenges or opposes everything you say.
1. Do not absorb the other person’s emotions
You’ve probably seen airport signs that caution you against carrying someone else’s bags. Imagine one of these signs when you’re approaching a confrontational person. Remind yourself that you don’t have to personalize the interaction or pick up their baggage. In most cases, their argumentative tendencies have nothing to do with you.
Not picking up someone’s baggage means that you:
- Don’t absorb criticism or negativity they’re trying to transfer to you
- Don’t feel the need to appease them or feed into the drama
- Avoid overreacting emotionally to what they’re saying or doing
- Stop yourself from ruminating about the interaction afterward
2. Choose which battles you fight
Most battles with an argumentative person aren’t worth your time, effort, or energy. Choose your battles with care, and you’ll conserve energy when dealing with a toxic friend, coworker, or acquaintance.
Ask yourself the following questions when someone is trying to get you engaged in a debate or argument:
- Does this issue really matter to me?
- Will it hurt me not to engage in this interaction?
- Do I really need to set a boundary right now?
If the answer to one of the above questions is yes, it may mean you need to engage (at least a little). If the answer to all of the questions above is a firm no, it probably means you can opt-out of the fight.
3. Get the data but leave the drama
It’s not always possible to just opt out or leave an interaction with someone who is being argumentative. For example, you can’t always walk away from conflict or a negative interaction at work or with someone in your family.
When you can’t opt out, it’s sometimes best to get the facts but leave the feelings. To put it another way: try to get the data without the drama. Listen and respond to what they’re saying but ignore how they’re saying it. Focus on key facts (e.g., they don’t want to do the grocery shopping after work and think you should do it instead) and respond to them without letting yourself focus on the tone of their delivery (e.g., don’t point out that they are complaining in a whiny, unpleasant voice).
4. Avoid becoming defensive
It’s a natural instinct to put your defenses up when someone is attacking you. But when you react defensively, the other person might take it as a sign that they have control over the interaction and over you.
Remaining non-defensive is sometimes the best way to assert yourself with someone trying to bait you into a conflict. Here are some ways to stay non-defensive when someone is trying to argue:
- Keep your cool. Avoid showing signs of being annoyed, frustrated, or hurt. Keep your posture open and relaxed, speak in an even tone of voice, and don’t talk loudly. If they’re getting loud or making a scene, this approach helps to de-escalate the situation. What’s more, when you stay cool, anyone who happens to be watching will realize that you aren’t the unreasonable one.
- Validate their feelings or opinions. Even if you don’t agree, saying you understand how they feel or what they believe can help defuse the conflict. It can also help to derail someone who seems bent on attacking or criticizing you by making you seem more like an ally than an opponent.
- Don’t take the bait. For example, don’t argue an opposite opinion, defend your innocence, or stoop to personal attacks. Instead, try to agree to disagree. You could also make up an excuse to end the conversation.
5. Set a clear boundary
When you’re learning how to deal with someone who constantly criticizes you, it’s often necessary to set better boundaries. Boundaries represent the rules of engagement, outlining what kind of words and behavior are and are not OK. For example, it’s important not to tolerate someone who is being abusive or toxic towards you.
Boundaries are necessary for all relationships, but they’re especially vital when dealing with negative, critical, or toxic people. Setting boundaries isn’t always as simple as saying no or walking away. In a lot of situations, boundaries are signals that let the other person know how to communicate effectively with you.
Here are some examples of how to set boundaries with someone who challenges everything you say:
- Ask them to change their approach: Try saying something like, “I’m happy to hear your opinion, but I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t raise your voice.”
- Lead by example: Model a more mature way of interacting by not interrupting and always speaking calmly. Spell out what you are doing to move the conversation forward in a positive way. For example, you could say, “I didn’t interrupt you, so please let me finish,” or “I’m really trying to understand your side of this.”
- Interrupt a heated or negative interaction: Make a positive suggestion such as, “I think we should take some time to cool off so we can talk about this issue in a more productive way” to interrupt a conversation that has taken a wrong turn.
6. Try to stay friendly
You can sometimes turn a negative interaction around by changing your demeanor. For example, if you have an argumentative spouse, try being warmer and more affectionate when your partner gets argumentative.
Being friendly can be difficult in these moments, but it can also be very effective in killing a bad vibe before it turns into a conflict. It can also help to improve communication in a relationship that’s important to you. If you’re not sure how to change the tone of an approaching conflict or argument, try one of these simple tactics:
- Lead with the good. When you sense conflict is in the air, try to get ahead of it by making the first move to initiate a positive conversation with the other person. Consider approaching them with a compliment, asking about their day, or sharing good news with them. This can offset an incoming attack while creating chances for more feel-good interactions.
- Use humor to lighten the mood. A well-timed joke can lighten the mood or break up the tension. For example, if you’re starting to bicker about how to do something, you could say, “If this was the Matrix, we could just download the manual instead of figuring it out ourselves.” Or if someone challenges a point you’ve made and you feel exasperated, you could laugh and say, “I think I need more caffeine!” instead of getting into a debate.
- Find points you agree on. Look for a point of agreement. Nodding and saying “yes” or “I completely agree with that point” can switch the tone of the interaction, making it harder for the other person to argue with you.
7. Call attention to what’s happening
Acknowledging difficult or argumentative behavior is sometimes the best way to exit a heated exchange.
This technique brings the negative undercurrent of the conversation to the surface, where it can be dealt with directly. Here are some ways to use this skill while also being tactful:
- Use an I-statement. Share your take on what’s happening by saying something like “I feel like this is getting a little too personal” or “I’m feeling confused about why we’re arguing.”
- Share an observation. Try sharing your thoughts and observations aloud by saying something like “I’m not sure this is productive” or “It seems like we’re both a little on edge.”
- Suggest a resolution. After you share your feelings or thoughts about the interaction, it’s a good idea to offer an alternative solution by saying something like, “How about we revisit this another time?” or asking, “Let’s table this for now?”
To avoid unnecessary conflict, try focusing on the interaction instead of making sweeping statements about the other person. For example, statements like “You’re so rude” or “You’re being bossy” aren’t helpful.
8. Use strategic questions and pauses
A lot of people wrongly believe they need to have a comeback for every jab a critical person makes. In reality, this can backfire because they end up even more embroiled in conflict. A better tactic is to take a step back from the conversation by using pointed questions and pauses to allow the other person to vent or run out of steam.
The conversation will become more one-sided, but it’s also less likely to turn into a full-blown argument. After all, it takes two to fight.
Here are some ways to use questions and pauses to avoid arguing with someone who challenges everything you say:
- Ask follow-up questions. Keep them talking by asking questions like, “What do you mean?” or “Why do you feel that way?” to show interest in their feelings and thoughts without arguing.
- Pause for a few more seconds. Silence gives you and the other person time to process, think, and be more intentional with your words. Pausing before responding can also act as a strong social cue. Silence can cause discomfort, which might prompt the other person to adjust their communication style.
- Use delay tactics. You can also use delay tactics to further stretch out a silence by saying something like, “I’m just thinking” or “Give me a second to consider that” to buy time. You can also table the entire conversation by saying, “Let me get back to you after I’ve had some time to consider what you said.”
Someone with an argumentative or aggressive communication style will often have certain telltale tactics and tendencies. Knowing what signs to look for can help you identify difficult people early on and set boundaries that make them less likely to see you as a target.
- They play devil’s advocate or always seem to take the opposite side to debate you
- They treat every conversation like a competition they need to win
- They have a strong need to be right or correct others who are wrong
- They’re overly critical and always looking for a flaw in what others say
- They’re contentious or seem to enjoy disagreements more than agreements
- They have an aggressive or dominant communication style and may interrupt a lot
- They seem energized by conflict, debates, and verbal competitions with people
- They hyperfocus on certain words or terms you use to attack or undermine you
- Ironically, they’re often hypersensitive to criticism and overly defensive
Dealing with someone who challenges everything you say is exhausting and annoying. Minimizing the time and energy you put into engaging in debates, arguments, and conflict is usually the best strategy. Sometimes, it’s even possible to interrupt a negative interaction and make it more positive by setting a boundary or shifting your communication style.