- Present yourself as nonthreatening as you try to make a personal connection with the other person.
- Simple things like listening, using inclusive words, and getting the other person to say yes can be helpful.
- Be aware of your physical surroundings, remain calm, and do not try to match their emotional intensity.
If you're like me, you long for a conflict-free life. Unfortunately, disagreements pop up in all kinds of settings: with romantic partners, friends, relatives, children, strangers, coworkers, customers, etc. People have preferences, needs, and desires that are sometimes out of sync with the wishes of others. C'est la vie, I guess. Anger and aggression are unavoidable parts of our social existence—just look at the rise of rage rooms or the popularity of aggressive video games—but that’s OK because there are steps you can take to make it better.
Signs of Conflict Escalation
You don’t need a degree in counseling to sense uncomfortable situations. Most of us have more than adequate danger detectors designed to alert us when someone is having a troubling emotional episode. Following are a few of the most common behavioral signs that something is not right:
- Clenched fists or tightened jaw
- Sudden change in body language or conversational tone
- Pacing or fidgeting
- The “Rooster Stance”—chest protruding out more with arms away from the body.
- Disruptive behaviors—yelling, bullying, actively defying or refusing to comply with rules.
What Can I Do?
Remember that Gen Z and other 20-somethings are often stepping outside the protective bubble of social media for the first time when they confront someone in a nuance-filled face-to-face emotional interaction. There is a generation of adults more comfortable dealing with interpersonal challenges through texting. If someone is angry enough to come to see you in person, they may not have the emotional skills to deal with your emotional response.
Before we continue, I want to emphasize that you should call the police if you feel physically threatened at any point. To prevent a conflict from getting to the point where physical safety is threatened, here are seven strategies for de-escalation.
1. Present a nonthreatening appearance. Even if you don’t feel it, try to look calm and self-assured. Restaurants often train servers to crouch down to the level of the customer to help build rapport. The same applies here. Encourage the person to be seated, but if he/she needs to stand, you can stand up, too.
Maintain a neutral facial expression or a positive one, but do not show contempt. Belligerent eye rolling is one of the best nonverbal examples of contempt. Research on romantic couples shows that one of the best predictors of relationship dissatisfaction is the regular expression of contempt. It is a brutal emotion that conveys the message that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. Not good in relationships and not good in conflict de-escalation.
Some other nonverbal recommendations include placing your hands in front of your body in an open and relaxed position, not shrugging your shoulders, and not pointing your finger at the other person.
2. Make a personal connection. If you have an existing relationship with the person in conflict, you can use that to your advantage. I was immediately concerned when a student arrived unexpectedly at my office visibly agitated. Fortunately, I knew him from four or five semesters of classes, and what could have spiraled out of control was stabilized after a few minutes. In conflicts with strangers, however, you might need to build a connection quickly.
People respond positively to their own name and it makes the dialogue more personal. Something as simple as asking, “What’s your name?” can help diffuse a situation. Continue by giving them a label to live up to: “You seem like a reliable and hard-working person. We are going to figure this out.”
3. Listen. Empathy is important to express during conflict situations. Even if you don't agree with the other person's position, showing an understanding of why they feel a particular way will help. Clarifying, paraphrasing, and open-ended questions all help to ensure that the person is aware you have understood their frustrations completely.
Always ignore your phone. Or look at it and say, “This call will just have to wait; we have more important things to take care of right now.” Make them feel like no one is more important than them right now. Pretend you are television’s Mr. Rogers if you need a behavioral model. Listen to their concerns. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings without passing judgment on them.
4. Shift talk to the future. The word affirmation comes from the Latin affirmare, originally meaning "to make steady, strengthen." Be affirming by offering support and encouragement. Show them you are moving forward with hope by using “let's” and “what” when talking. Include the person in those future plans: “Sit down; let’s figure this out” or “What can I get for you? I will get you some water if you'd like.”
5. Get them to say “Yes.” Get the other person to say "yes" to a question you ask. This bit of advice is a page right out of the Dale Carnegie classic How to Win Friends and Influence People first published in 1936. It is harder for someone to stay angry if they are agreeing with you.
A great strategy here is to ask a question that they will likely say yes to and that sounds like you are doing them a favor. “Do you mind if I get some other people involved right away so we solve the problem as quickly as possible?” Or you can ask, “Is it OK if I take notes?” This conveys the message that what they say is so crucial you need to write it down to make sure you fully understand the problem. As a general rule, people like it when others are attentive to their needs.
6. Don't match their intensity. If you are upset, it’s only going to escalate the situation. Try to stay calm to help you navigate the scene safely. Take a deep breath. Use a low, dull tone of voice and don’t get defensive, even if the insults are directed at you.
Don’t outcompete or try to match the intensity of the other person. Competitive people frequently view things in terms of wins and losses. When they see someone angry, they try to match the intensity to win the argument, but this is the exact opposite of what you should do to de-escalate. Remember the goal here is not to win the argument; it is to diffuse the situation so that both sides achieve a successful resolution.
7. Be aware of the physical landscape. How many other people are in the room besides you and the person you are in conflict with? Take note of chairs, tables, items on shelves, and the space around you, like exits and windows. If you can position yourself so that you are not trapping them in the room, do so. Also, make sure they are not blocking you from the exit in case you need to evacuate quickly.
Add soothing sounds and lights to your environment when possible. If you spend a good amount of time in a setting where conflicts frequently arise (e.g., your office or place of employment), take the time to make the space as calming as possible. This is good advice in general and not specific to conflict de-escalation.
Finally, no person, group, or set of conditions can guarantee that a conflict will proceed constructively. If de-escalation is not working, stop. And if the situation feels unsafe, leave and call for help.
Copyright © Kevin Bennett, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved
Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrère, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 5–22.