If you are a conflict resolution professional, you are very likely to meet with angry, confrontational, and aggressive people on an almost daily basis. You may even be called in specifically to deal with them if you are an HR professional or an ombuds. It’s almost inevitable. People in conflict are almost always emotional. Even business disputes aren’t “just business.” Our emotions affect every decision we make.
Everyone has encountered aggressive and confrontational individuals, and perhaps even been the aggressor themselves. Anger is one of the six basic emotions. We recognize it and react to it even as infants. Its expression can make us uncomfortable, not only because we have been taught to prize rationality, but because we may feel endangered. We know that unchecked anger can lead to violence. Therefore we must learn to de-escalate aggressive and confrontational behavior quickly, safely, and effectively.
Anger changes the way we think, feel, and behave. We decide less rationally and more instinctively. We are energized, eager to act, risk-tolerant, jealous, and suspicious. We focus on short-term wins at the expense of long-term well-being. None of this is conducive to resolution or peaceful coexistence, and it could turn dangerous. How do we defuse the situation?
Anger is a response to a threat
The most important thing to know in de-escalation is that anger is a response to a real or perceived threat. The angry person believes their needs, goals, or sense of self, are being undermined or frustrated. The first principle for an intervenor in a confrontational situation is to avoid being identified with the threat. Most of the time, we are able to reason even though we are angry. Our emotions are under control and the rational part of our brain is in charge. But by the time screaming starts, the most primitive part of our brain is in control and we are nearly irrational, only able to understand simple statements.
We are “fighting mad.” Everything we experience is being rapidly assessed and labeled as either a threat or not a threat. In our role as de-escalator, our job is to communicate in a way that puts us in the “not a threat” category.
There are some techniques that will make you appear less threatening. First, respect their personal space. Stay close enough so you don’t have to shout, but not close enough to touch them.
The more the aggressor escalates, the more distance you should keep between you. If they step back from you, you need to give them more space. If they step towards you, it’s possible that you are too far away. But it is also very possible that they are trying to get close to intimidate you or even assault you. For your own safety, be very aware of distance when engaging with a highly agitated person.
Use a calm tone of voice and relaxed posture. Make open gestures demonstrating that you are in control of yourself, not preparing to counterattack. Think before you speak; your words will be evaluated quickly for their level of threat. Regardless of the person or the situation, these universal approaches should reassure a highly agitated person that you are not threatening.
Next, try to discover what happened to trigger such an escalation. Focus on the actual threat to which the individual is responding. Ask simple questions to get the basic information you need. Don’t judge. Inquire. The more the aggressor talks about the situation, the more they are engaging the rational, rather than the emotional part of the brain, and the less out of control they will be.
As an intervenor, there are only two roles you can play in the eyes of an aggressor. You are either the one responsible for initiating their agitation, or you are the one called in to take over for the person who initiated the agitation. Take deliberate steps to distance yourself from the cause of their agitation.
If you are the focus of the threat and their anger, try to shift their focus off of you and onto something else as the cause of the problem. In the unlikely event that you insulted, provoked, or hurt someone, take responsibility, sincerely apologize and seek forgiveness. Recognize how you have made them feel. This should go a long way toward de-escalating their anger.
You were more likely to be delivering news or enforcing rules that have frustrated their achievement of some goal. If you have become the focus of their anger, they have attached you (as a person) to their perception of the threat. You are standing in their way; they must overcome your resistance.
But how do you change their perspective? Start by empathizing with them. Calmly and quietly, let them know that you know this is very difficult for them. Remind them that you’re not personally responsible for what is happening. Promise to help them as much as you can, if they will talk with you in a more appropriate manner. Now instead of being an obstacle, you are a potential ally. How much you can help them is irrelevant. You want to stop them from focusing their emotions on you. Once you cease being a threat, they should become more rational. When they have de-escalated, continue to empathize and honestly try to help them solve their problem.
If you intervene after the commotion has already begun, you have something of an advantage. But you can lose it quickly if you approach the situation the wrong way. Your goal is the same: To make sure they don’t view you as a part of the threat. If you represent the same entity that the individual is upset with, it’s likely that their first impression will be that reinforcements have been called in against them. This is a particularly big problem if you are an authority figure
Use the techniques discussed above when inserting yourself into an ongoing confrontational situation. As you approach, introduce yourself in a friendly manner. Briefly explain your role and say you are there to provide assistance. Ask them to explain to you what is going on, in their own words. Don’t bark orders. Listen attentively to their story. If they begin to escalate and treat you as a threat, point out that you are not part of the conflict but are there to help. First, you need to understand what happened. The act of telling one’s story to an interested listener is very calming.
When they have finished telling you, make sure you understood them. Then ask them what it is they are hoping to achieve. If you can help them, do. If you can’t, empathetically explain why not.
Then, explain your expectations and the reasons for them. You don’t have to solve their problem to de-escalate their behavior. The intent of your intervention is to get them to think rationally again. Every day we want things that we can’t have. Rational people understand that.
Despite your best efforts, people will not always de-escalate calmly. You must ALWAYS watch for signs that you are losing control, the situation is worsening, or that it may turn violent. If you think this could happen, disengage immediately and get help. Some people may not be able to bring themselves under control. Other times, mental health issues, drugs or alcohol may be negatively affecting their self-control and rationality. People exhibiting confrontational, and aggressive behavior are unpredictable and you must always put your safety first.
Always Retain your Self Control
People behave in confrontational and aggressive ways because they are reacting to and defending against a perceived threat. The good news is that you can reduce the intensity of the threat; the bad news is that you are susceptible to the same risks of escalating as others. Someone will challenge, frighten or intimidate you, and your mind and body will respond to the threat. You won’t be of much use as a de-escalator if you lose rationality as well, will you? Effective de-escalation requires assessment, planning, and flexibility. These are complex thought processes, none of which we can perform when we escalate emotionally. Just like anyone else, our focus turns to overcoming what we see as a personal attack. At best you have an argument, and at worst a fight. You WILL be seen as a threat if this happens!
To be effective, you must be able to withstand the verbal attack, and the fear and frustration that accompany it. Being able to maintain your self-control is the single most important skill you need to develop to be effective as a de-escalator. Success hinges on your ability to avoid being triggered emotionally.
An argument consists primarily of verbal attacks and counterattacks, with each side, trying to intimidate or otherwise harm the other. In de-escalation, only one side is acting this way. The other side (you) is doing the opposite of what the angry side wants and expects. The person you’re trying to de-escalate wants to hurt and upset you. Understand that, and don’t let it happen.
If you’re calm and in control of yourself, you are in control of the situation. You have the ability to apply complex thinking to the situation and adjust your behavior to l suit your needs. By modeling appropriate behavior, you also set an example for the agitated person to follow. Another key benefit is the image you present to others who may be watching, compared to the agitated person. You are a professional and must look and act like one. In the event that things do not end well, or a complaint is filed, you can stand by your professional conduct.
You are less likely to escalate yourself if you enter into the situation with an expectation that you will be threatened, cursed at, called names, and so on. Don’t take it personally. It isn’t about you, it’s about the threat. You are catching emotional shrapnel. You just happen to be there. Another thing to remember is that anger and escalation are basic behaviors we all experience given the right conditions. Once again, it’s not personal. If despite your best efforts you find yourself losing control, remove yourself before you make matters worse.
The next time you find yourself face to face with an agitated person, change their perspective of you from source of threat to potential ally, by utilizing a calm empathetic approach aimed at building rapport. You can do it!