Why Do Arguments Become Hostile?

When conversations go wrong, there’s a moment right before it gets bad that something must have changed. What is it? What causes the transition from civil to adversarial?

I can think of five six reasons, but I’m sure there are more:

  1. Someone feels they are not being heard. When we feel we’re not being listened to, most of us get louder. And if that doesn’t work, we get louder or more hostile, since we are seeking recognition more than anything. A negative feedback loop ensues, where each person tries to be heard by getting louder, causing the other person to do the same.
  2. We confuse our identity with our point of view. An attack on an idea is not an attack on a person, unless that person can’t separate the two. Even if someone makes fun of another person’s point of view, is that necessarily an attack on their person? It is if they can’t separate themselves from their ideas. If I like blue, and you like green, who cares? Is there a name for the line in each of us between opinions we defend personally (abortion), and we don’t (favorite color)?
  3. Cultures where walking away, being polite in the face of idiocy, is seen as weak. Arguing with someone who isn’t listening doesn’t make much sense. The wise thing to do would be to politely leave, but that’s often seen as giving in. The result is people won’t relent.
  4. There is an unspoken argument. A previous debate has left unexpressed feelings in one party who insists on trying to vent those feelings from some other exchange during the current conversation. This inevitably makes the other person feel like they’re not being heard (#1).
  5. There is no trusted mediator. There is always a third party that can be found that is trusted by everyone, who can step in and restore decorum. Without that third party, negative feedback loops can start and there’s no one who can step in to end them.
  6. It’s on purpose. One party is deliberately trying to upset the other, and will use nearly any means to do it. Although this is uncommon, often part of the problem is that getting the other side upset is seen as a kind of victory, where the goal ceases to be to educate or convince, but instead to hurt, ridicule and violate. Many skills of rhetoric and debate hinge on manipulating language to ones own advantage even if it’s clearly unfair, or untrue, and when a person loses their self-respect they’re willing to take cheap shots.

What are other causes? Leave a comment.

Also see How to discuss politics with friends for practical advice.

[Note: #6 added 2/20/2014]

23 Responses to “Why Do Arguments Become Hostile?”

  1. Mike Nitabach

    There is always a third party that can be found that is trusted by everyone, who can step in and restore decorum.

    I disagree. Sometimes there simply exists no one who is trusted sufficiently by all parties to a dispute to allow mediation.

  2. Scott Berkun


    I disagree as well – lets get a mediator :)

    You’re right of course. But in many situations I think there is one. Problem is it’s often seen as weak for one party to seek out a mediator.

    This contributes in the U.S. why there are so many lawsuits. It’s the only third party people think is available to them to resolving issues.

  3. Drew K

    Your examples all assume(?) honest debate. Suppose you are arguing with an attorney or a paid spokesperson. Nothing you can say will matter, because they are being paid to advance a position. You can’t be heard.

    Once you realize that, you’re facing something that looks like #3. Do you continue to engage someone who is being paid to take a position? Does walking away mean they win the point? I don’t know how much this applies outside of politics, but it sure does explain most of the “debate” you see on TV: People talking past each other for fun and profit.

  4. Scott Berkun


    Really good point. Putting aside weather the other party is actually honest or not, as soon as I assume they aren’t, I will likely start treating in a fashion that will encourage them to be more polarized. There’s a self fulfilling element.

  5. Martijn Linssen

    Because we take them personally Scott!
    And we take them personally because of our perceived self-importance

    I have a brief view on that here: http://www.martijnlinssen.com/p/don-miguel-ruiz.html

    but Don Miguel Ruiz can tell that in a much, much better way

    In general though, the solution is very easy: situations like these don’t occur among people who truly like and love eachother

  6. Scott Berkun


    There’s a collision of attributes. People with lower perceived self-importance are unlikely to engage in expressions of opinions to begin with. The people most likely to be vocal are already pre-disposed to take disagreements personally.

  7. Millard

    “Is there a name for the line…” Belief?

    If I know something to be true/false, we can’t argue. My favorite color is green — we can’t disagree about that. Nothing you might say will cause me to question that, to reconsider my position. However, if I only believe something to be true, you can sow doubt, causing me to question myself and my carefully crafted position. If I really want to believe that it is true, I’m forced to go on the defensive. As my grip on the belief weakens under the onslaught of new data, I’m forced to go offensive in an attempt to hang on to it.

    Give it a try! Gather some actual scientific data about the dangers of second hand smoke (review it, of course, to see if the conclusions match the statistical significance of the results), then try to have an intelligent discussion about it with someone who doesn’t smoke. I was stunned.

  8. Mike G

    I’ve often thought that pride is kind of like the latching point that anger lays a hold of. If pride can be taken out of the picture, things get too slippery for anger to do anything.

  9. Sarah

    I tend to do #2 a lot. How hard it is for me to separate identity vs. my ideas.

  10. Jehu

    When at least one side of the argument sees the conflict represented by the argument as existential (or at least very high stakes), expecting civility is futile.

  11. Richard

    It’s too easy to forget these points some times, and take it personally and thus leads to World War III.

  12. G.Skinner

    I find it amusing when the very same people of whom tell me to be ‘less intense/less serious’ are the very same that in nearly the same breath take my observations as an attack on their identity and are the first to start slinging personal attacks.

    I have found that if a person wishes to take something personally, and read more into something than what you are laying out – they will do that regardless of how many different ways to express the message. In which case, I normally bar those people from my existence.

    Communication is a two-way street and all to often we put the pressure on the speaker to ensure that effective communication has occurred. I tend to metaphorically see it such as catch and throw – if the speaker has attempted with all their might to throw the ball as straight as possible and the listener simply chooses not to attempt to catch it, then there’s not much the thrower can do. In which case, your advice to walk away fits the bill perfectly.

    1. Abby

      You are suggesting that some people “choose” to misinterpret or “take it personally.” Why on Earth would anyone want to do that?! It doesn’t make sense, except perhaps, to rationalize the reason for an adverse reaction to what was said. It can be used to push blame onto the listener; implying that he alone is responsible for a misunderstanding. It doesn’t matter if a speaker has attempted with all his might to speak clearly and respectfully. He may still fail.

  13. Disorderly

    “An attack on an idea is not an attack on a person…”

    …if it is done in a civil and reasonable manner, I would like to add.

    “Even if someone makes fun of another person’s point of view, is that necessarily an attack on their person?”

    Ridicule, like sarcasm, brings the argument down to a more personal level and is likely to be offensive because it is an expression of disrespect.

  14. Ye?im

    hi scott. thnx a lot. your points really mean something for me.

    to contribute: people have their loved ones (not necessarily family and friends, including believes and politicial views) and others. if there is a conflict with others, then arguments may get ugly. because we tend to not to listen others, not to value others, not to appreciate others. since we put the others in a place where they never have to say anything to be worth to listening. we believe that there is nothing we can learn from them. so why listen? it’s a war. so get a sword…

  15. Gail Swanson

    Sometimes people think there is too much at stake. They tend to catastrophize the outcome of making the wrong decision and become desperate to sway the group opinion. I’ve been on projects where people were extremely invested in the project’s success and often saw their way as the only path to avoiding failure. If the culture dictates getting everything right the first time, people are willing to fight to the death.

  16. Dan

    People often question motive rather the substance of ideas. This allows them to avoid dealing with the possible flaws in their own ideas and to project the “incorrectness” of the other persons ideas on some hostile intent (against the self).

    People who have difficulty separating self from their ideas/beliefs often have a distorted view of self. What may appear as a strong ego is often a weak ego that is threatened by contrary ideas. In pop culture, if you don’t accept me and my thoughts/ideas/beliefs uncritically, you’re a Hater.

    I recommend “The One Culture” to see Science and Sociology work through these issues.

  17. Abby

    An absolutely crucial aspect of this issue demands a mention; that people are different and in any conversation, there can be an unsuspected clash of motives. People on the narcissistic/psychopathic end of the scale (25% of the population) do not participate in a discussion to share views, explore ideas, or to expand their horizons. We all like to be ‘right,’ but their ONLY interest is to ‘win,’ to overpower, defeat, and dominate. The methods they use can be devious, dishonest, and manipulative or openly hostile and subversive. For a person of integrity with concern for truth, a conversation with a narcissist is not likely to be satisfying.

  18. Shane C

    In some cases it may be important to recognize toxic behaviors of others, and realize those behaviors as to make an adjustment to avoid being pulled into a situation where one feels the overwhelming need to hold ground or stand strong in defense. When a partner uses manipulation to antagonize the other which can cause frustration and hostility..however it is up to both to respect one another



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