The perception of threat is the primary cause for conflict escalation. The most important word in the previous sentence is perception. If you have no intention of causing the other person harm (either physically or emotionally) and they perceive that you do intend to harm them, your real intentions do not matter. With regard to the affect your actions have on the conflict, it only matters that they perceive you to be a threat.
The leverage point for de-escalating the conflict is their perception, and the strongest impact you will likely have on their perception is your tone and body language.
One commonly referenced study on the impact of non-verbal clues in the communication process comes from Albert Mehrabian. In this study, Mehrabian found that when we communicate about feelings and attitudes the received message (the receiver's perception and interpretation of the message) is based on a combination of word choice, vocal tone, and facial expression. Meharabian expressed this observation with his “Liking Formula” that says:
Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking
Mehrabian's study has been misquoted, misapplied, and misconstrued by many people to say that 93% of every message we convey to others comes from our tone and body language, and that interpretation is simply not true. What is true is that in ambiguous situations where we are conveying like-dislike and other emotional context messages to others, people place more emphasis on the tone and body language than they do to the words. The practical implication of this observation is this:
If your words do not match your tone and body language, people will believe your tone and body language before they will believe your words.
To become a master of conflict resolution, you need to learn more than a basket of tips, techniques, strategies, and phrases. You need to develop the ability to observe your tone and body language to identify inconsistencies between the words you are using and the non-verbal messages you are conveying.
When you find yourself in a conflict and you are working to resolve it successfully, choose non-threatening tones and body language so that your words of resolution will match the non-verbal messages you send.
This article is from the De-escalation Tips series. Use the links below to read more from this series.
- Five Ways to De-escalate a Conflict
- Listening as a Tool to De-escalate Conflicts
- Accept and Acknowledge Feelings to De-Escalate Conflicts
- Using Apology to De-escalate a Conflict
- Conflict De-escalation Strategies: Control Your Tone and Body Language