Imagine you’re waiting in line at the post office. It’s right after work, so the queue is quite long and everybody is tired and probably stressed from their various workdays, but you’ve all got important reasons to be there. There is someone up next at the counter who for some reason has been taking a really long time to do what they came for, and it’s making everyone antsy– especially the person right behind you. He starts talking loudly about being in a rush. A minute passes and he shouts “Hurry UP!”, making the person at the counter nervous and they drop their change on the floor. The man in line swears loudly and bangs his fist on the counter. The postal clerk tells the man to calm down, and the man begins to yell again, waving his hands in the air.
We’ve all been in situations similar to this one, where someone is getting more and more worked up, and it’s uncertain which way the scales will tip: will the situation get out of hand and possibly turn violent, or will level-headedness prevail?
When a situation like this arises, the people involved can either choose to react on gut impulses and emotion and make the situation worse, or they can take a step back and do what’s known as “de-escalating“.
The word “de-escalate” literally means “to decrease in intensity or magnitude,” and can be the key component in defusing situations that are bordering on dangerous or violent. In extreme circumstances, it can mean the difference between walking out alive or going home in a body bag, but in daily life de-escalation skills are also important for situations like the post office example, or even for dealing with an upset neighbor.
There are various techniques you can employ, and the following are just a few examples of ways you can use de-escalation in your daily life, and they all have to do with communication.
- Give Them Your Full Attention
- It can be tempting, when someone is acting agitated or worked-up, to ignore them. Sometimes we think “They’re being unreasonable. I’m not going to pay attention to them so they’ll see how that kind of behavior gets you nowhere.” But when someone is acknowledged they feel important and validated, and that opens the gate to beneficial communication. After all, would you want to seriously discuss anything with someone who was blowing off what you’re saying or not taking it seriously? Fully listen to the person, make eye contact, and listen with your entire body, and resist the urge to make all the socially appropriate “understanding” noises–in a tense situation those can come across as sarcastic.
- Don’t Raise Your Voice
- This can be hard to do if the other person already has their voice raised, but it is crucial if you want to keep the situation from blowing up. Speak at a normal volume without adopting a patronizing tone.
- Get Them to Say Yes to Something
- As silly and simple as it sounds, it’s harder for someone to stay upset if they’re agreeing with something you’re saying. Ask questions to clarify why exactly the person is upset, like “Are you feeling upset because you feel you’ve been in line too long?” or “Are you upset because of XYZ?” Not only does asking those questions make it clear that you are making an effort to understand the way they’re feeling, simply having someone say “Yes” brings you to more common ground.
- Don’t Say “Calm Down”
- As anyone who has ever said “calm down” during an argument knows, it doesn’t work. When someone is already worked up, saying “calm down” sounds like “you’re acting insane.”
- Be in Control of Yourself
- Relax your face, use a lower tone of voice (during conflicts we tend to use higher tones in anxiety), and use a stance that is confident and relaxed, even if you don’t feel it. Conflict can often make everyone in the room feel nervous and anxiety-ridden, and if you can fake relaxed confidence just for a moment while you address the situation, others will consciously or sub-consciously follow suit. Be very respectful when firmly setting limits, as it will be crucial for you to address the person’s issue but retain some control of the situation.
- Trust Your Instincts
- You will know within a couple of minutes if your tactics are working and the situation is calming down. If you feel like after a few minutes of trying these methods it doesn’t seem to be working, ask the person to leave or ask someone to escort them out
The next time you find yourself in a position where someone around you is worked up and getting aggressive, try these methods to de-escalate before the situation gets out of hand, and hopefully you be able to stop a major problem before it begins.