Whether at work, home, or a social setting, you may end up confronted with an interpersonal conflict at one time or another. Should you find yourself at odds with a co-worker, family member, or even a complete stranger, three valuable tools can help with conflict resolution: communication, de-escalation and defusing.
Ever since the first caveman grunted at the second caveman, communication has connected us as humans. Without it, nothing could be accomplished or expressed. The converse is also true. Through communication, we can express our ideas and thoughts, and via concerted effort, a team of scientists can design and build a space station.
Communication is the universal solvent. It is the glue that holds together every personal, social, and business relationship. Philosophers of antiquity discovered that increasing one’s communication (sharing your opinion, viewpoint, or thoughts) with another person leads to resonance and affinity. It is the exact reason why a law enforcement officer may start a field interview with “Hey, are you doing OK?” to disarm any adversity in an attempt to build rapport.
Suppose you observe a potential conflict brewing, and you get into good communication with the individual(s) involved. In that case, it indicates to that person that you are non-antagonistic and further that you’re reaching out to them.
Try and call them by name early in the conversation as it demonstrates that you are sincerely listening. No matter how rude they may appear, being polite usually helps soothe the savage beast. Even though it may be difficult, if you respect that person’s point of view, they typically pick up on that and often respond accordingly with further communication.
The more universal solution you can apply, the better the interaction, leading to deconfliction. That serves to help resolve an issue as opposed to exacerbating it.
When responding to a crisis intervention call, the objective of a law enforcement officer is to preserve or restore the safety of all persons involved in the disturbance while simultaneously ensuring community protection. One of several de-escalation tools available to law enforcement is Verbal Judo. Dr. George J. Thompson developed Verbal Judo to help police officers talk to people in stressful situations. The system involves active listening, paraphrasing, and request/choice options. Used together, it can help with de-escalating the event.
Most people prefer being asked to do something rather than being told to do it. Gaining their cooperation and compliance through verbal interaction is your best bet. You can get there through active listening and letting them do most of the talking. That good communication may well be what is needed to de-escalate the situation.
Another tool in the de-escalation tool kit is body language or non-verbal communication. Among other practical techniques, open palms facing forward act as a subconscious sign of ‘surrender’ to the observer. Eye contact is essential as it demonstrates a visual connection. Lowering your voice and moving a little closer (conversational distance) instead of shouting across a room at a greater distance suggests trust and mutual respect of personal space.
Finding common ground where all of you can agree on something mutually obvious is helpful. Even if it is something seemingly small, it is a starting point.
Some experts suggest matching that emotional tone if the other person becomes overly emotional. With some empathy, you may be able to help reign them in a little bit. Approaches like this can help de-escalate a situation that may be well on its way to a boiling point.
The difference between de-escalation and defusing is that de-escalation can be compared to a pot of water about to boil over. De-escalation keeps the fuse from being lit. Defusing means that the bomb fuse has already been lit. You have no choice but to cut the fuse to stop the imminent explosion.
One of the best examples of defusing a situation is Antoinette Tuff, who talked down an active shooter. The shooter had cranked off two rifle rounds into the foyer of an elementary school just outside Atlanta, Georgia. He was in the process of pointing the muzzle in the direction of the kids when she started talking to him. Tuffs was the only defense standing between the gunman and 800 children at that elementary school. This excerpt from an article describes the incident.
“Tuff watches as the gunman lowers the rifle and paces across the front office. He is a stocky man in his 20s with brown, cropped hair and a nose that looks like it’s been broken. He is breathing heavily as he turns to Tuff and bellows: “Call 911 and call a news station. Tell them I’m going to start shooting.” Tuff’s shaking hand grips the phone as she dials 911. She quickly complies with everything the gunman asks, addressing him as “sir” as she relays his messages to the dispatcher. The minutes drag on, and the gunman shouts threats and waves his rifle at Tuff. Tuff takes a risk. She asks the gunman an odd question: “Can I go to the bathroom?” The gunman stops pacing. He turns in her direction. The angry expression on his face evaporates.”
Antoinette Tuff talked an active shooter into a cease-fire and defused a highly volatile situation saving the lives of all involved.
De-escalating a potential threat situation is like convincing someone not to put a lit match to a bomb fuse. Communication turns out to be the very best tool in any conflict resolution kit. De-escalating means that something is starting to look like it might get ugly, and as things become more agitated, you can turn the heat down or even off using both verbal and non-verbal communication. Defusing is about recognizing the volatility of a situation and taking measures to stop an active threat.