Reversing the course of an escalating conflict is a topic that surfaces frequently in my work with coaching clients and workshop participants. I have received emails, blog comments, and twitter requests for help with this topic. While full treatment of the topic goes beyond what I can completely cover in a single blog post, I thought I would collect what I would consider the most powerful and most universal tips for conflict de-escalation.
In a previous post on why conflicts escalate, I wrote on the perception-anger-behavior pattern that often contributes to conflict escalation. The leverage or trigger point of the pattern that leads conflicts to escalate is the perception part — specifically the perception of threat. That leverage point is the focus of this post.
The big idea to remember when you want to de-escalate a conflict is…
Make yourself non-threatening to the other person.
In the interest of giving you specific steps to accomplish the goal of making yourself non-threatening, I suggest that you…
Listening is a powerful tool. When other people think that you have not listened to their concerns, they will almost invariably see you as a threat.
2. Acknowledge and accept their emotions/feelings
Building on the idea of listening, I recommend that you acknowledge and accept the other person's feelings without passing judgement on them. As I said when I wrote the tongue-in-cheek post about how to make a conflict worse, I don't recommend telling them how they feel. It is usually okay to ask them how they feel and then to acknowledge it.
3. Apologize for your contribution
This is a point I have made before, and I think it is worth making again: very few conflicts are entirely the fault or responsibility of only one party. There is almost always something that you have done to make the conflict worse. To de-escalate the conflict, accept responsibility for your contribution and apologize for it.
4. Control your tone and body language
A significant portion of the message people receive from you in face-to-face communication is conveyed through your body language and your voice tone. If you look threatening, you are threatening. If you want to de-escalate a conflict, remember to control your tone and body-language.
5. Focus on the future
Getting hung-up in the past is a sure-fire way to make conflicts worse. When you shift the conversation to the future, you engage both you and the other person in a problem solving activity rather than a fault-finding exercise. You create hope, and you make yourself less threatening.
In future posts, I'll share practical strategies and tips for applying these five ways to de-escalate conflicts. In the meantime, remember the key point, to de-escalate a conflict you need to make yourself non-threatening to the other person.