Why you like to pick fights

Author: Kate Cross

Know anyone with a penchant for butting heads? You know the type – they always seem raring to have an argument, or poke the bear, so to speak. 


Psychology and High Performance Consultant Dr Jo Lukins says the urge to pick fights can occur for many reasons, including the “adrenaline rush, attention seeking, the need to be right, being fearful in an environment, personality characteristics … poor social skills [and] lack of emotional intelligence”.


Some people, adds Psychologist Donna Cameron, seek confrontation for stress relief, a method that “can become quite addictive”.

But, some quarrelling is good


Dr Lukins calls arguing well a skill that can be a “beneficial part of human interaction when it's done well”. 


“Arguing can be a great way to understand an alternative point of view, express an opinion, and challenge understandings and expectations,” she says.


The problem arises, however, “when someone argues the person rather than the point”, she says.


The toll of the argumentative type


If you’ve ever shared space with an argumentative person, you might have left feeling drained and silenced.


“[Argumentative people] often cause an increase in adrenaline, arousal levels, and stress response in those they spend their time with,” says Dr Lukins.


Unfortunately, the person on the receiving end “quickly learns that there is no point in fighting back” so tends to withdraw from the argumentative communication and avoid speaking up, adds Ms Cameron. 


Alarmingly, research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2014 showed that frequent social conflict was linked to more than double the risk of an early grave.


So how should you deal with someone who enjoys pushing your buttons?


  1. Acknowledge them – Let the person know you’re listening so that it “doesn’t turn in to a tennis match”, says Dr Lukins.

  2. Stay calm and don’t mirror their behaviour – “Mood is contagious, so don't add fuel to the fire,” says Dr Lukins, who recommends stepping away if you can’t keep your voice and demeanour calm.

  3. Spot exit signs – Ms Cameron says that when communication reaches a certain point, it’s often best to walk away from the argument “and have some time out”. Usually this point, she explains, is when the discussion goes off course, involves attacking language, or dredges up past grievances.

  4. Protect yourself – “You cannot pacify an argumentative person when they are in a rage, as their goal is to attack,” says Ms Cameron. Dr Lukins advises you step away from the altercation if your psychological or physical health are at risk.


Wait a minute, I think I’m an argumentative person …


If you argue to blow off steam, Ms Cameron suggests taking stock of your stress levels, any issues you’re avoiding and tension triggers. Once you address your triggers, she says you can make changes to your communication style to avoid taking your stress out on others.


In the argumentative moment, Dr Lukins recommends taking a breath, acknowledging your sparring partner's viewpoint and trying not to focus on winning.


After all, Dr Lukins says “argumentative people may win the argument, but lose the person”.


What’s more important?




© 2020. All rights reserved.  |  Last updated: 15 • 02 • 2021