We’ve all been in situations with friends, family, or coworkers, in which people behave in unwanted ways and emotions are running high. It can be tempting to allow this to escalate our own emotions and reactions to others’ behavior. However, this is often actually counterproductive. Especially if the situation is with people with whom you want to (or have to) maintain a relationship.
So, how do you handle those situations?
The first step is to take a moment to ground yourself and try to allow the emotions of the situation to fall away. It helps to be in a position to evaluate things critically. It can be difficult to do that when your own emotions are running so high that they cloud your judgment. Use your skills to try to stay in a more balanced space while going through this process.
To develop a plan and defuse a situation that is escalating you need to think about the details. What is happening and are there any potential contributing factors? By thinking about this you may be able to encourage a more appropriate response from the person in question.
What details should I think about?
Consider the following, and any others you can think of:
- Is the behavior directed at you, is it directed at another member of a group you are part of, or is it directed at a group you are part of as a whole? Consider how stepping in will impact the other person if it is directed at another member of your group. Will they be upset that you involved yourself or will the impact be positive?
- What started the conflict or inappropriate behavior? What is continuing it?
- Where is this situation occurring? If the location is loud/chaotic/crowded is this a contributing factor?
- Does this situation carry a risk of violence if you don’t intervene? Is there a risk of violence if you do intervene? If so, do you need outside help or are you equipped to handle it?
What do you know about the person creating the conflict?
This can be difficult, as often in a conflict scenario, you are nearing a place of fight or flight yourself. It can make thinking critically and empathetically about someone who is behaving inappropriately towards you or others difficult. This will be easier if you can manage not to get caught up in emotions of the moment.
Consider the following, as well as anything else you can come up with:
- Are substances a factor in this interaction?
- What is motivating to this person?
- What does this person enjoy?
- Is this person a social person or a more introverted person?
- What is going on in this person’s life that might be contributing to their reaction?
Once you’ve thought about the details surrounding the situation it’s time to start thinking about your goals in this situation. Take a minute to think about what you would like to happen. Now take a step back and evaluate whether your ideal end goal is realistic. If your ideal ending is not realistic, what would you accept as a result?
It’s time for a plan
If you’ve realized the situation is unsafe for you it’s time to consider who to contact and how to remove yourself from it. There is no shame in walking away or getting help. If you think that you are able to intervene in the situation, it’s time to get to work.
Start to consider how to mitigate some or all of the external factors you’ve identified. Perhaps stepping to the side of the room or outside will allow some space if it’s loud or chaotic. When there are multiple people contributing to a situation occurring, consider trying to separate the people involved. If substance use might be contributing think about what substance has been used. If it’s a longer-acting substance it may make achieving your goal more difficult. However, if it’s someone who is continuing to drink too much, perhaps suggest stepping outside to get some fresh air while you talk.
It’s time for action
Once you’ve managed to mitigate as many of the external factors as you can, it’s time to try to talk to the other person. This is likely to be frustrating and may, at times, remind you of talking to a kindergartner. Remember to stay grounded. Allow the emotion to exist but pass without escalating yourself. If the situation has already become heightened this may involve circular arguments. Focus on acknowledging their feelings until the situation is somewhat de-escalated. Don’t validate their actions! Now try to redirect their energy. If they are having difficulty redirecting their energy while standing still it may be better to move. Suggest a walk, throw a ball together or something similar.
Assuming you’ve managed to get out of the circular argument loop, think about how to approach the conversation in a way that will appeal to the other person. A person who likes to be seen as somebody others can turn to may value validation in this area. Ask for their help in continuing to make the community a great place by being an example for others.
Offer empathy about any circumstances that might have contributed. For example, if a family member or pet is ill, they might have been more on edge than usual and overreacted. Validate that you understand that they’re going through a lot right now, but also keep the conversation focused on your goal of defusing the situation. Appeal to what it is they value about your relationship or their relationships with others. Explain how continuing to behave in this manner goes against what they want, or has consequences that they don’t want. Be careful not to threaten, as that can lead to a
Take a step back if you need
If it seems like the other person is unable to de-escalate despite your efforts you may need to take a step back. Tell them that you’re happy to continue the conversation at a later time, but you currently need to do something else. Be careful at this point, because it can be very easy to blame them for the failure of the conversation. Make sure that you don’t assign blame. Sometimes, people are not in a place where they can have an effective discussion. Removing yourself (and any other involved people) from the situation, with the intent of revisiting the discussion at a later time, can be the best option.
This process can feel extremely frustrating, but it can help you to retain a relationship with someone even in difficult circumstances. Blame is often counterproductive in moments like these. While it may seem like you’re not calling someone on problematic behavior, that’s not the goal here. The goal in this stage is to de-escalate the situation and allow some space to calm down.
If the situation was serious enough to warrant further discussion, that is something that should occur at a later time. It’s better to revisit when both you and the other party aren’t in a heightened emotional state. During that discussion, it’s still important to use “I statements”. Speak towards how the behavior impacted you (or others) versus using a blaming approach. This will allow people more space to reflect without going on the defensive.
When doing any sort of conflict resolution work, it’s important to keep yourself and your emotions as much in check as possible. I have mentioned this multiple times throughout this post, but it’s critical. The best way to do this, in my experience, is to do your own work on things like mindfulness, CBT or DBT or ACT techniques, etc, in your everyday life. The