Anyone who's ever had to defuse a tense work meeting or even a stressful Christmas dinner knows that sometimes thoughtful de-escalation is the best (and often only) way to get what you want. But some of us have hot tempers, or a tendency to bluster, or are simply ignorant about how to manage conflict — whether it's at a family event, a work meeting, or on the global diplomatic stage.
Photo: Bryan Burke
To get an idea of how professional conflict resolution experts handle tense situations, I spoke to Robin Burcell, a former cop, detective and hostage negotiator and now a crime novelist, and Chris Voss, the former lead international hostage negotiator for the FBI and author of Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.
Here are their best tips for how to de-escalate a tense situation.
Many people think that "dealing with conflict" equals "winning the argument", but giving the other side some air time will get you closer to resolution. "Listening to the other side, whether it's North Korea, Russia, Democrats or Republicans, is key. You want to make them actually know that you're listening. Are you really hearing what they're saying? It's super basic, but it's the number-one rule," says Burcell. She gives an example of a homeowners' association meeting she attended in which two factions were openly warring — "They were so angry, and no one could get a word in edgewise. No one was listening to anyone."
In that homeowner's meeting, Burcell said she used her training by listening to both sides thoughtfully, and then — and this is key — repeating back to each speaker what he or she had said. "By the end of the meeting, I wouldn't say everyone was happy, but they weren't at each other's throats any more."
Voss echoes this, and notes that when you're angry or feel that stakes are high, it can be hard to echo what the other person is saying, because "it might be negative, and we don't want to admit that we see their side. We don't want to reinforce their beliefs. But [by paraphrasing], we're not agreeing. It's neither agreement or disagreement, it's just a statement." The other side feels heard, and you can move forward.
Part of "active listening" is the listening, of course, but also giving little indications that you are following right along with them. "The occasional yeses, uh-huhs and you're rights lets them know you're listening and paying attention," says Burcell.
Label the Emotions, and Don't Use 'I' Statements
"Naming strong emotions, like fear, causes those feelings to diminish," says Voss. "'You seem angry,'" is a way of affirming their feelings and expressing empathy. But "how you make the observation — that's the tricky part. I is a self-focusing word. 'You seem angry [is better.] You changes the focus of what the sentence is. 'You seem afraid' causes the person to think about it. Do I seem afraid? Once you try to get people to admit things, the dynamic changes."
Skip the Yes or No Questions
Says Burcell, "When you ask questions, make sure they're open-ended: 'Why are you upset?', rather than yes or no questions. Give them a chance to talk."
Use Flattery, but Judiciously
"People hate flattery as a general rule," says Voss. "But it always works — even when we've just seen it used on other people. My contention is that flattery is a form of empathy, of appreciation." What doesn't work is if your actions or tone don't back up your words, says Voss: "And the appreciation has to be genuine" (or at least really appear that way). So don't say something in a work meeting like "We just love all your ideas and you're such a creative powerhouse" — and then demote them to sandwich-cart pusher. You want to consider your flattery and try to find some kernel of truth in it, so it doesn't ring hollow. Voss calls this "mercenary empathy".
Tell the Truth
"Telling the truth can be insanely effective," says Voss. By this he means making a statement that is emotionally neutral and simply states a fact. "Donald Trump could say something like 'Kim Jong Un has the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese in his hands.' It would have an impact on both sides and reframe the discussion." In a marital dispute, for example, it might help to state something simple and factual: "It upsets the kids when we fight." This puts the focus on problem-solving rather than blame: As Voss says, "The implications make people take a step back."
Take a Step Back
This is something I learned when I was in my 20s and cried easily. (Writing for the internet has cured me of that.) A friend told me that she had learned in business school that, in tense work situations, it is always OK to temporarily halt a discussion — to say, if you're getting emotional, "Let's revisit this tomorrow when we're calmer." Burcell echoes this strategy: "Pause and step back. When things are heated, people say things they don't mean." If you're getting worked up, it's OK to excuse yourself for a moment or even reschedule for another day.
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Find a Neutral Party to Intervene
"Once you gain their trust, try to problem-solve," keeping your end game in mind, says Burcell. If you can't keep your cool, bring in a third party to mediate. "I was neutral in the homeowners' meeting because I had no emotional investment. It was easy for me to be calm. If you're not, is there a neutral party?"
Just Forget About the Last Word, Already
"You try to get the last word and it escalates," says Burcell. "Somebody needs to take a step back. No matter how hard it is — take a step back, count to 10."
Feel compelled to get one last parting shot? Go back to step one.