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De-escalating conflict: employing effective strategies when the tensions are high

Jim Ice, Ed.D. -

It is not how we act in daily interactions but how we handle conflict that defines us - to our customers, our co-workers and our boss. Although we would love to believe it is the service and cooperation rendered to others each day that shapes their perceptions of us, we are most remembered by how we handle the stress and anxiety of conflict.  

When we work with others, we will experience conflict. There will be times in your work life when tensions and anxieties will run high and the patience will grow thin. Customers will demand immediate resolution to issues you didn't know existed. Co-workers will disagree with your plan of action and may express frustrations with a raised voice or a dismissive response. Although we would like to avoid conflict when possible, we also must learn how to successfully manage a conflict toward an effective resolution. Understanding how to relieve the pressure of difficult situations is a critical skill for anyone who works with the public, customers, suppliers or internal teams.

The experience of conflict

First, let's to take a minute to understand what causes conflict. Conflict is the perceived clash of interests. The conditions for conflict occur when an individual or group believes that the priorities, needs or goals of another will interfere with their own desires or plans. This perceived disruption of expectations can infuse stress into the situation.

We have all experienced feelings of anxiety and frustration when something stands in the way of us achieving our goals. The disruption could be as simple as unexpected traffic that threatens our ability to make a flight or as complex as the internal politics and jockeying sometimes involved in acquiring resources needed for your team's success. Disruption of our expectations makes us uncomfortable, increases the pressure and raises situational anxiety. Like shaking a can of soda, this pressure can prompt an explosion. This makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to clean up the mess and resolve the initial problem. And allowing this pressure to go unchecked may result in dramatic conclusions, including damaged relationships, loss of customers or even physical violence.

Reactions to conflict: violence or silence

Whenever we don't feel safe, our senses are heightened. When we encounter a risk situation, we prepare to defend ourselves or escape the situation. This "fight or flight" behavior is innate and designed to protect us in situations where we perceive danger.  

Although we typically think of dangerous situations as being threatening to our physical bodies, we react the exact same way when a disruption occurs that threatens to interfere with our expectation for obtaining our goals. These disruptions may be structural (e.g., policy changes or a changing project timeline) or interpersonal (e.g., disagreements on next steps or conflicting role accountabilities.) Whatever the source, this disruption brings with it the risk of our objectives being interrupted.

Some situations may prompt individuals to "check out" of the situation, as opposed to the fight or flight response. Although they remain physically present, they no longer actively participate in conversations. This "silence" behavior substitutes for the flight response when it is impossible or inappropriate to leave. Alternatively, some disruptions many illicit a fight response that is demonstrated by verbal or physical "violence." 

In the New York Times best seller "Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high," the authors describe the violence and silence behaviors that occur when people feel "unsafe" within a discussion. They outline the following behaviors:

Violence Behaviors

Controlling - cutting off; overstating facts; absolutes

Labeling of people and/or ideas - generalize; stereotype

Verbal attacking - belittling; threatening; aggressive attempts to convince, control, compel

Physical attacking - physical threats and/or actions

Silence Behaviors

Ignoring or discounting - the contribution and/or perspective of another

Withholding information - as a means to avoid potential problems, including: masking of true opinions; avoiding any sensitive topics, withdrawing or misrepresenting exiting information

Ensuring safe and productive engagements

The violence or silence behaviors may be demonstrated in a variety of ways. But when you detect them, it may mean that the one demonstrating the behavior no longer recognizes the situation as "safe" - safe for a positive exchange of information or moving forward with issue resolution. 

Nothing kills a positive discussion like a fear of not being heard, understood or respected. When someone does not feel safe to be candid, or if they feel others involved in the interaction do not have their best interest in mind, even well-intended comments can be misunderstood and raise tensions and disruption. When we feel we are involved in a one-sided discussion or that our perspective is not respected, the content of the discussion no longer matters; it is now all about the emotions associated with feeling disrespected. Small matters can explode when one or both parties feel as if the other is not giving them the respect they deserve.

Consider a time when you had a difficult experience as a customer, perhaps at your favorite restaurant. Maybe your waiter seemed to be distracted while taking your order and asked you multiple times to repeat your order. There is nothing difficult about repeating your order. But if the waiter gave the appearance of not respecting you as a customer, it can be frustrating. Suddenly it's not about the logistics of the order; it escalates to how you feel you are being treated. As a result, your temper can flare (violence reaction) or you determine to reduce their tip (silence reaction.) When working with customers, teammates or others within your work environment, it is critical to consider not only what you are trying to accomplish but how the interaction is taking place. 

Creating a safe environment

The first de-escalation technique you must learn is how to create, or restore, safety - both physical and psychological - in each interaction. Once safety is established, the individuals in conflict can move onto the important work of generating alternatives and resolving open issues.  Until safety is assured, individuals will naturally focus more attention on defense, violence or silence - versus problem solving.

The book's authors suggest there are two conditions required for establishing an environment that is safe for conflict resolution to take place: establishing a mutual purpose and a mutual respect.

Mutual Purpose - When the parties involved agree on the purpose for their interaction, they will be more willing to risk trust and share with each other. If one or more participants in the interaction feels that there is not agreement on common purpose, they will tend to act in ways to protect themselves. Although the goals for the interaction may be different for each participant, a safe environment is established when all parties believe that they and their objectives are understood and respected. This allows them to move forward toward meeting goals.

Establishing this mutual purpose is as simple as asking each participant to state what they hope to achieve within the interaction. When all participants understand the objectives of each other, the conditions for collaboration exist. This simple, yet critical step, is often overlooked or assumed.

Mutual Respect - The second condition required to assure a safe environment is mutual respect.  This condition is a bit harder to achieve than mutual purpose because it is often an implied, rather than overt, condition. We can verbally describe our goals for an interaction, but we typically do not describe our level of respect for each other. Although respect for the opinion of another is demonstrated, in part, by what we say, it is also gathered based on the perception of how I feel you treat me. This is why the distracted waiter can cause frustration, or why a patron that belittles the wait staff can cause hard feelings. Dignity is important to us, and when we feel our dignity is challenged, we feel unsafe - prompting violent or silent behaviors.

To ensure mutual respect requires each party to commit to the "golden rule" of treating others as they would like to be treated. The stress associated with conflict situations can cause individuals to dispense with the common courtesies of treating others with the respect they deserve as a fellow human being. Only when the dignity of mutual respect is restored can the interactions focus on productively solving problems.

Treating others with respect by acknowledging their perspectives, even when we do not agree with them, is important to productive discourse. Unfortunately, too many times in our rush to express our perspective, we imply the perspective of others adds no value - and therefore, we insult the dignity of another. This is one reason our mothers taught us not to talk about politics or religion at the dinner table; these are discussions that can easily offend and polarize. Effectively resolving conflict requires us to identify effective ways to engage in discourse - and even challenge ideas - while maintaining mutual respect.

The customer service environment provides an illustration of the importance of building mutual respect. When a customer service agent acknowledges the value of his customers' perspective and the validity of their concerns, the tension of the situation is released. This is really the meaning of the old saying, "The customer is always right." Actually, they are not always "technically" right, but they always have the right to their opinion and to be treated fairly regardless of their issue or demonstrated behavior.   

Here are a few demonstrations of respect: "I understand you are frustrated because you feel that your concerns are not being met. I can see your point and why this is so important to you." 

It is also OK to ask for the same respect in return. For example, "Please understand that I will do my best to assist you within the constraints of the situation" or "I also have concerns about the quality of our project output and how my work will be represented."

The best way to receive respect is to demonstrate respect!

The role of forgiveness

"To Forgive is Divine." This proverb suggests the second de-escalation technique. When someone is under stress, they may act in ways they would not normally react. Stress may cause them to be short, curt, abrasive or even mean. In the context of customer service, this behavior is all too common. You have a choice. Do you escalate the pressure, or do you begin to de-escalate the tension with your reaction? In order to provide excellent customer service or to take a leadership in de-escalating a tense situation, we must be willing to not take offense, to understand the stress driving their behavior and empathize with them. In other words, to not respond in kind but rather forgive their behavior. 

The following are steps you may take to de-escalate a situation when dealing with someone under stress:

If your ultimate goal is problem resolution, often the best course of action when offended is to forgive and return the focus to the problem at hand. However, you should never allow yourself to be in a situation where things have escalated to the point where you feel at physical or emotional risk. When this occurs, leave the situation immediately and seek immediate assistance. If this takes place at work, remember to report the situation to your manager immediately. When forgiveness is warranted, it may help you to remember that when under stress, some people lash out, even at those who are trying to help them because they are seeking to blame someone for the situation. And let's be honest; some people are just naturally brusque, and stress makes it worse.  In these situations, we must fight our natural tendency to be offended and react negatively, modeling the exact same aggressive behavior to which we are reacting. 

A template for de-escalation

Once you have ensured a safe environment and attempted not to mirror the anxiety behaviors of others - and decided to take action to first reduce the tension- here are a few practical tips to consider: 

  • Select a location that allows discussion without distraction. Step out of main traffic flow. Never limit egress, such as backing people into a corner or standing between them and the exit.
  • Angle yourself at 45 degrees to facilitate discussion. Stand near, but not too close to, them. Let them dictate distance. Never turn your back to them in any situation. Walk beside and not in front. Use your words or hands to point the way.
  • Establish eye contact (demonstrates focus and interest) without offending. Try to hold your discussion at eye level (not talking down or up to them.) Provide a "serious smile." Demonstrate a positive but not happy attitude.
  • Actively listen. Try not to interrupt and reflect back your understanding of their concerns, needs, priorities and goals.
  • Remember that meaning is communicated through tone and body language as well as words, so be aware of your message delivery.
  • Express empathy with their frustration and acknowledge their perspective. Demonstrate your interest in helping both of you achieve your interests.
  • Request the same respect you are giving them in the situation.
  • Explore solution alternatives. Demonstrate the willingness to consider alternatives. Ask them to help generate solutions.
  • Once you have a plan for resolution, seek verbal confirmation of their agreement to try the selected alternative(s). Define a method to review results to ensure it is meeting defined needs.

These techniques may not de-escalate every situation you may face, but they should help you better understand the sources of the tension so you can together define a plan for resolution - or at least suspension - in order to address the underlying issue. 


About the Author: Ice serves as the Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Carlow University. For more than 30 years, he’s served as an advisor to global business leaders on issues of talent strategy, workforce alignment, strategic planning, employee engagement, change leadership, building learning organizations and equipping leaders for success.
Contact: Jim Ice, Ed.D.