Have you ever been in a conflict with someone about something and wanted to either prevent the situation from escalating, tone down the rhetoric, or wanted to de-escalate a tense situation? There are ways to address each of these types of situations. Ideas are presented here. From the book Peaceful Resolutions Chapter two focuses on The Art of De-escalation. Elements of that chapter are being offered here to help with each of these three situations.
Keep in mind that the primitive or reptilian brain at the top of your brainstem has allowed us to survive by kicking in quickly when we are threatened. At the top of the brain stem the amygdala kicks in when we feel threatened. In six to ten seconds our blood stream can be flooded with chemicals and hormones for up to 22 hours or until we have a sleep cycle. We have been hijacked. This process shuts down other parts of the brain to allow us to fight, flight or freeze for self-preservation. This is great if we are being chased by a tiger, but not so good when addressing a teenage adolescent, a peer at work, our boss, or a friend.
Thank goodness the prefrontal cortex can override the amygdala to stop us from loosing our cools and flooding. The prefrontal cortex is only about 5% of the brain mass, but takes about 25% of the brain’s energy. It needs to clear itself regularly. That can be accomplished with mindfulness by taking ten minutes a day for prayer, meditation, yoga or reflection. Studies from neuroscience reaffirm this. By being proactive this can help calm you and keep you clam during tense situations. But what about yourself and others when certain triggers kick in?
Prevent the situation from escalating
When you feel the trigger kicking in you have the ability to realize this and keep yourself calm. This takes practice. Notice how you feel. What was the trigger? Reconstruct the situation and focus that next time I will not let myself become angry. This takes practice. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to address this at first. Recognition is the way to start. Take some deep breaths.
Monitor your physical stance. Take a look at yourself. Appear calm on the outside though on the inside it may not feel like that at all. Be self-assured. Relax facial muscles. Be confident. Speak slowly in a monotonous voice. When we are angry our voice tends to become higher pitched so concentrate on speaking lower.
Do not become defensive. If you receive insults or derogatory remarks, remember it really is not about you, it is about the anger the other person feels about the situation. You have the choice to leave should de-escalation not be effective. Keep that in mind too. It may be better to come back to this when tempers are cooled.
Be respectful while at the same time setting firm limits. You and the other person need to be respected. Treat the other person with dignity and respect.
Tone down the rhetoric
Don’t take it personally. You are the one that will decide whether to be angry or not. Go into the session with the intention you will not let yourself become angry. If you don’t think you can do that when you are starting to feel the anger, walk away. You are teaching yourself how to control yourself.
If you can keep yourself from becoming angry actively listen with open ended questions. Restate what the other person said in a neutral fashion. Paraphrase, summarize, ask open ended question and empathize with the other person. Reframe what the other party said with no hostile statements.
Slow down. Deliberately force yourself to share how you perceive the other person feels by being empathetic and feeing their pain. What constructive actions can you take to demonstrate you feel their pain.
Be aware of a change in body language, tone, eye contact or nervous actions of pacing or fidgeting, a clenched fist, or a clenched jaw. Knowing these elements and taking constructive actions to tone down the rhetoric will help set the stage for de-escalation.
De-escalate a tense situation
Going further do not pass judgment. Force yourself to keep an open mind. Be courteous. Reframe what the other party is saying and ask questions that the other party can say yes to. For example, the teenager coming home past curfew and you are worried, frustrated and angry as a parent, you might suggest instead of talking now wouldn’t it be better to discuss this in the morning? Right now, let’s focus on … sleep, homework, something to eat, or something else. The key is to focus on the needs and interests of the other party and to demonstrate reasonableness instead of authoritarianism.
All the way through the process give yourself positive self-talk. Use self-distancing with your own name. For example, if your name is Mike say to yourself “Stay calm Mike. You can make it though this, Mike”. This too can help you remain calm, tone down the rhetoric and de-escalate the situation.
It’s not about you. It is all about we. But we starts with me.
Take small steps at first. Play it out in your head ahead of time. Practice this with a relative or close friend. Don’t beat yourself up if it does not work at first. Critique the process. What can you learn from the session to apply in the future? Give yourself positive feed forward for the next time. Be patient with yourself. You can do this. Good luck.