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"Ouch!" to stop escalating conflict

OUCH!” A shortcut to de-escalating conflict

“Suddenly we’re yelling!”

Many patients tell me that they are surprised to find themselves suddenly in a conflict that is escalating out of control. It seems to them to happen without warning, but in almost 100 percent of cases, they are just missing the warning signs, and lack an effective method to divert the conflict to a more productive direction. (See my Emotional Intelligence blog post.)

Warning signs

There is almost always a warning sign or two – if we pay attention. To find yours, try this: Close your eyes and picture yourself in the most recent, or worst blow up. Take a couple deep breaths while you’re envisioning and putting yourself in the picture. Notice where you find the feeling in your body and/or what thoughts are coming up. Notice it in as much detail as you can. Where is it? (Chest, stomach, neck, shoulders…) Is it more to the left or right, front or back, higher/lower? t, What is the quality of it? (Tightness, stabbing, throbbing, hot. Intermittent or continuous) What is the size of it.

Am I thinking a repetitive, characteristic thought? (“This is unfair.” “Dammit.” “Why don’t they just…”) Many of us have these kinds of linguistic triggers.


When you notice the warning sign, say, “Ouch!”


Socialize this technique with your partner so that he/she knows (and hopefully agrees to cooperate. Here is a suggested script:

“We’ve been having trouble working together to come to productive solutions when we don’t agree, or when someone’s feelings are hurt. I’d like us to try something. To interrupt our cycle of escalation, whoever first notices that they have taken offense at something says, “Ouch.”

Once the “Ouch” is called out, focus shifts to the “injury” that precipitated it. This means that rather than continue discussing whatever the conflictual topic is, the other person asks, “What happened?” Then the person who said, “Ouch” tells, in objective terms what caused the feeling. For example:

Terry: Your forgetting to deposit our checks was thoughtless and stupid. Now we are going to have to pay bounced check fees, and we are going to be behind on our bills. We are not dipping in to our savings just to bail out your mistake!

Chris: Ouch!

Terry: (sighs) What happened?

Chris: You know, you just called me stupid and blamed me.

Terry: Okay, you have a point. Although I technically didn’t call you stupid, I take your point. I shouldn’t have used the word “stupid.”

Chris: Okay thanks for acknowledging that. Let’s figure out what to do.

The “Ouch” on its own doesn’t solve the problem, but it does stop the escalation. When either party’s self esteem takes a hit, or when either doesn’t feel heard, you suddenly have a secondary problem, which is that the human need for esteem or empathy needs to get corrected before the practical problem (in this case, bounding checks) can be successfully addressed.

When the escalation has been arrested by the “ouch,” it is easier to use other communication skills like active listening and I-messages.

It’s important to stop the escalation early before offenses compound. One fun feature of implementing the ouch is that it can lead to a good natured competition for who says “ouch” first. This has the benefit of teaching couples to notice escalation earlier and earlier and taking away its power.


Sometimes calling the other person’s attention to an injury is all that is needed to de-escalate. The “Ouch” is also metacommunication (see posting on metacommunication) that your feelings are important, that they merit acknowledgment, and that you are simply calling it out responsibly and non-combatively.

Adding to that a sincere inquiry about what happened can also arrest the developing rift. But if not, use of I-messages (see the interpersonal feedback post) and active listening

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