How to De-Escalate A Hostile Situation

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“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master…”

― Epictetus

Someone is suddenly in your face and loudly berating you.  There are several ways you can react, but do you?  It is impossible not to be drawn into verbal altercations that can easily tip over into hostile encounters.  Human interactions cannot altogether be avoided.  It’s very natural for us to either freeze, fight, or flee, but the best course initially is usually to attempt to de-escalate the situation.  The more you practice the techniques of de-escalation, the better you will be at them.  If you practice the techniques discussed in this video, you will find that you will naturally begin deploying the skills in all your interactions.  You want to remain in control of any conflict situation at all times.  You want to support yourself first, but you also want to help the other individual.  You want to avoid any response or action on your or your party’s part leading to further escalation. 

In this blog, I’ll examine a few techniques you can use to attempt to de-escalate a situation.  I am assuming that the situation you find yourself in is capable of de-escalation and that the aggressor is not intent on hurting or robbing you.  If the aggressor has nefarious intentions, de-escalation isn’t probably likely.  Always question the motivations of the aggressor and struggle to understand the true and underlying irritations of the individual confronting you.  The hostile situations in this video are like most everyday encounters.  They are based on misperceptions and steeped in misinformation.  If you can learn to master these skills in everyday life, implementing them in a potential societal collapse situation could be the difference between life and death.  So what can you do to avoid violent altercations?  Let’s take a look…

RISE ABOVE THE CONFLICT

Clenched fists, raised voices, pacing or fidgeting, the rooster stance with chest out and arms protruding away from the body, fingers or hands pushing or violating proximal personal boundaries, these are all signs that a person has reached or is nearing a point of hostility.  When the alarm response occurs in a body, there are an estimated fourteen hundred chemical reactions in the body.  The chemicals released into the body are primal.  Chemicals like adrenaline are meant to heighten our focused awareness, elevate heart rate, prime our muscles, and get us ready for fighting or fleeing the situation.  Or, maybe a little of both.  The aggressor has these chemicals flowing, and you do too naturally in response.  Some of these chemicals slow the energy going to the higher reasoning areas of the brain because they are meant to filter out our surroundings and zero in on the specific threat we face.  You may become unaware of things happening far away and get almost tunnel vision and lightning focus on your aggressor.  Keeping calm and keeping your higher reasoning brain in step with your reactive brain will equip you to navigate the situation appropriately.

Calm yourself before interacting.  Concentrate on being the slowest breathing person in the general area.  Take a deep breath.  Use a low and calm tone of voice.  Do not react and do not get defensive.  Appear calm.  Maintain a neutral facial expression.  Keep your hands open and in front of your body.  Don’t point at the person.  Try to maintain a safe distance.  You want to remain 3-4 feet away from the person if possible at the absolute minimum.  All of these are proven techniques for de-escalating a conflict.  The first thing you must do to de-escalate the situation is gain control of yourself.  I once heard a combat-hardened veteran say that he derived his public speaking calm and confidence by knowing that if things ever did get out of hand, he would be able to kill everyone in the room.  Of course, things never got out of hand, but just assuring himself with the thought was enough for him to contain and control these chemicals that would have otherwise made him nervous in front of an audience.  You may have heard of the other less serious and more humorous technique of picturing the audience naked.  This, too, helps to stifle the overflow of the anxiety-causing chemicals, as it projects one’s own feelings of vulnerability onto the audience.  Another technique is to just for a moment reflect upon the last situation you de-escalated successfully and tell yourself, “I got this too.”  Whatever technique you use to control these chemicals coursing through your body is up to you, but you need to take this millisecond pause to calm yourself and engage in the safest and most rational means you can to diffuse the aggressor.  Otherwise, you risk even more chemicals being released, and your judgment becoming clouded.   

Taking an intentional moment before responding can force a moment of reflection in the aggressor.  If you pause and intentionally focus on calming yourself, calming your breathing, the aggressor will most likely take a moment and evaluate whether you have listened to them.  This injects feedback into the person’s self-reflection loop, which may be enough to ratchet down the conflict.  The aggressor may question their current means of expression or if you are the appropriate target of their outrage.

Remember that your stress level will either contribute to the escalation or contribute to the de-escalation.  Your stress is a reflection of your ability to cope.  It is also critical to note that in most cases, a situation will not move from the fronting stage to the attack stage if the would-be attacker feels that he will lose the physical altercation.  Calm, confident, and not rising to the aggressor’s challenge is intimidating to the aggressor.  It leaves them questioning what hidden powers you have to remain calm.  In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.  From the very start, be like the lion, unmoved and confident.  Escalation often requires both parties in the conflict.

CHOOSE YOUR WORDS AND BODY LANGUAGE CAREFULLY

If your response is to become defensive immediately, you will not be able to de-escalate the situation.  If you clench your fists or poke your finger in the face of the aggressor, the situation will likely get more intense.  If you use words that disvalue the other person’s communication, motivations, or beliefs, you will escalate the situation.  First, watch the position of your hands.  One method is palms up with both hands in front of you as you talk.  This is the giving position.  It isn’t vulnerable as much as it is empathetic.  The aggressor does not feel further threatened, though you have your hands in front of you should you need to defend yourself.  Talking with your hands in the stop position with your fingers up and the palms facing the individual unconsciously tell the aggressor to stop.  This position can also escalate the situation depending upon the defiance level and intent of the aggressor.  Do not keep your hands in your pocket or behind your back, as the unconscious perception that you are hiding something could fuel an escalation.

Your words need to be as calculated as your hand movements.  If you say to the person, “You need to calm down.”  “Stop being angry.”  “You’re overreacting.” or “Back off.”  You are likely just going to add fuel to the fire.  As a husband, I’ve learned the hard way that this never helps in any arguments.  Try to use the person’s name, but offer yours first, so they know you simply wish to provide them with this courtesy of recognition.  For instance, you might say, “I understand what you are saying.  Let’s hear each other out.  My name is John. What’s yours?”  This can provide the person with the sense that their concerns are being heard.  It is an offer of empathy, and empathy is hard to dismiss.  This alone may calm a situation.  Acknowledging their anger lets the aggressor know you hear them, and their offense is valid.  It also signals that you are not intent on escalating the situation, but you are more intent on hearing them out.  You can take this a step further by applying Rogerian logic.

EMPATHY AND ROGERIAN LOGIC

Most people really just want the opportunity to be heard.  Even if you disagree with the person’s position, expressing your understanding of their position and why they may feel a particular way is the first step to resolving or diffusing the conflict.  To accomplish this, you have to make an earnest attempt to hear the person and understand what they are honestly saying.  You must not be condescending in your response, regardless of how contrarian or absurd the person’s argument or conflict may seem.  Instead, try saying, “If I hear you correctly, you are saying that…” and then do your best to summarize the person’s main points.  They may want to clarify, but their contemplation of your summary may be enough to knock them out of their overheated primal mind and into their more rational mind.  Their elaborations may be off-topic.  This will mean that either their frustrations are deep-rooted and complex or they may be a little mentally off-kilter.  This method of listening and summarizing is called Rogerian argument or Rogerian rhetoric.  It is a form of argumentative reasoning that aims to establish a middle ground between parties with opposing viewpoints or goals. Psychotherapist Carl Rogers initially defined it, and it has been used countless times to instantly take the wind out of an argument’s sails.

Just like kids who are fighting may eventually forget what they were fighting about in the first place, the same can be true for adults.  People get worked up by things they read on the internet or things they accept as truth.  They become outraged, and they sometimes vent that outrage upon people who they initially believe are the problem.  When you show them that you are not part of the problem they have perceived or gently force them to confront the confusion and perplexity that you reflect back from their verbal assault, you can sometimes evoke a moment of recognition and clarity in the person.

I have a friend who is excellent at coaxing people to face themselves.  Specifically, when a person tells him an off-color and offensive joke or makes a snide remark meant to attack or demonize someone else, he will simply say, “What?” like he hasn’t heard them. Then the person has to repeat it.  Often they will have to rephrase it.  Again, he will respond with “What?”  The person then doesn’t know if he is being heard or if he is being toyed with.  The person usually gives up after the second or third time with a dismissive, “Nevermind.” or “Forget it.”  They are unsure if the person they are saying the snide remark to is on their side, and they have had to confront their own underlying meanness.  Not everyone is inclined to laugh along with the viciousness of others.

Another technique is to use the person’s name but offer yours first, so they know you simply wish to provide them with this courtesy of recognition.  For instance, you might say, “I understand what you are saying.  Let’s hear each other out.  My name is John. What’s yours?”  This can provide the person with the sense that their concerns are being heard.  It is an offer of empathy, and empathy is hard to dismiss.  This alone may calm a situation.  Your interactions with a hostile aggressor should be the same.  They should gently coax that person into seeing the absurdity or silliness of their rage.  But what if you don’t have the chance to really de-escalate the situation?  What if you are dealing with someone hell-bent on confrontation or crazy?

BE AWARE OF SPACE

Being aware of the bubble of space around a person is a clear indicator of whether the situation can swiftly escalate further.  We all have a comfort zone around us, and we all have an awareness of other people’s comfort zones.  When someone doesn’t seem to be aware of your comfort zone, or they are in your face and too close for comfort, as they say, your option should be raising your hand in the gentle stop motion and taking a step back.  If the person continues, or they still seem to be unaware of your proxemic space, it may indicate that the person is off-kilter a bit, to put it nicely.  One of the first signs of evident mental instability is that the person is unaware of other people’s personal space.

If you can maintain a space of at least three feet, you can very likely, slowly, increase that space by baby-stepping to the side and back at intervals along with the conversation.  The resulting distance may lead the person to focus their outrage on a closer person.  Your goal in de-escalation should always be to remove yourself from the confrontation if you feel there is no chance of resolution.

Believe it or not, if the aggressor is very much in your personal space, subtly placing your hand over your nose and mouth like you are shielding yourself from their bad breath while also not trying to embarrass them might actually work.  You are trying to evoke a moment of self-reflection to pull them out of their primal mind and into their rational mind.  Using your hand in this manner is non-threatening, protects your face, and puts your hands in a more response-ready position.

WHEN DE-ESCALATION ISN’T POSSIBLE

There are times when words won’t work.  The inconsolable, the crazy, the hell-bent may be too far into their more primal mind to ever be pulled out without hours of therapy and possibly medication.  Sadly, this is a reality, and you may have seen this in people you have known.  People believe many outlandish theories these days, even though every other source tells them the view is incorrect.  In these cases, the previously outlined forms of engagement may still work.  Trying to understand what the person’s underlying motivations are may allow you to at least calm them enough for others to arrive or for more benign and sympathetic observers to gather.  There are still techniques to deal with these seemingly impossible to de-escalate situations.

You could try to suggest another time by saying you hear the person, and their concerns seem pretty valid, but would it be possible to discuss them at another time.  You could express that you have something very pressing to get to right now, but you want a chance to hear them out.  Your goal is not really to set up a time to listen to them, it’s to get away from the person.  To this end, you could say let me grab a pen and paper to write down my contact information.  You might say let me get someone who has more power than me to help you and hear you out.  Again, whatever deception you deploy, its purpose is to buy you a few moments to get away. 

If words are proving useful or the person is becoming more physically aggressive or lays hands on you, there are few other options but deflection, retreat, or a sudden and overwhelming physical response.  In some cases, you are left with no alternative but to jump from calm to an aggressive response.  If you are forced to violence in retaliation to someone physically violating your space, be certain that your response is justifiable, swift, and follow it with an attempt to retreat or escape the situation.  Do not linger.  

CONCLUSION

If the situation can be diffused and de-escalated, it will likely be due to one of the techniques I have outlined here.  Human interaction and confrontation are unavoidable.  In a grid down scenario in which medical attention may not be available, it’s even more important to consider the fact that avoiding conflict altogether and escaping the situation is all the more critical.  While it is easy to allow our pride to be bruised and give in to the natural desire to defend our position, if there is no way to seek out medical care in the event we get harmed, a scuffle that could have been avoided can quickly escalate into a bigger problem.

What do you think? What are your best tactics for de-escalating a conflict?  What’s the last altercation you were in and why? 

As always, please stay safe out there.

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