How to De-Escalate Conflict in Any Situation
These days, with tensions over political and social issues bubbling, you can get into an argument almost anywhere—the internet, the workplace or at home.
But it can be emotionally taxing to argue with people whose realities don't align with your own. It might be tempting to isolate yourself to avoid unwanted and upsetting conflict.
New research from Bar-Ilan University and the University of California indicates that, while it's comfortable to cultivate safe inner social circles, you will have to interact with people who cause you stress because of the way our society is set up.
"Difficult people are likely to be found in contexts where people have less freedom to pick and choose their associates," Shira Offer, a sociology and anthropology professor at Bar-Ilan University, wrote in the American Sociological Review about the findings.
Offer noted these individuals are usually people “with whom our lives are so complexly intertwined," like family members and coworkers.
"Social norms do not allow us to simply walk away from them, however much this might be tempting to do sometimes," she wrote.
Because of that, we need to find ways to navigate conflicts gracefully.
Intention is everything
When people get worked up or become emotional during interactions, it is typically because they feel attacked in some way by another’s opinions, said Kansas City-based intercultural advisor Brenna Paxton.
This can trigger a defensive response—the defensive person instantly sees their counterpart as an opponent.
“The most prominent mistake is not tuning into the intention of the person who began the conversation,” said Paxton, who has studied the topic for eight years and lived in Europe and Argentina as a mentor for exchange students and expats. “Simply being aware of the other person's intentions help inform if and how you speak to them.”
For example, is that person actually trying to attack you or are they simply confused?
The situation escalates when the people in the discussion begin reacting rather than responding, ceasing to listen to each other. They demand the right to share their opinion and be heard, but they don't extend that right to others. They want to talk but aren't willing to listen.
“When people start reacting instead of consciously responding, that's when things really start to go downhill,” Paxton said.
Sit with discomfort
For lots of people, getting emotional means they're not able to hold their own in the conversation anymore. If this happens to you during a disagreement, take a moment to acknowledge the bad feelings rather than letting them overtake you.
“Self-awareness and the ability to remain calm, breathe deeply and listen patiently are all so important,” Paxton said.
“Practice being present with this feeling of discomfort so you are then able to observe why this discomfort has arisen.”
Steps to common ground
Paxton suggests following this system when navigating difficult situations:
1. Constantly re-establish throughout your conversation that you appreciate the other person sharing their opinion with you, and that you respect them, even if things are getting heated. Remembering a person is human is important.
“It is not helpful or productive if pushing your own agenda is your main priority in a conversation,” Paxton said. “Going into a conversation with the mindset that the other person is your opponent is incredibly detrimental.”
2. Begin by speaking to a specific point they made that you agree with. No matter how much you think you disagree, you can always find something you agree upon—even if it's a broad idea that you both want the best for the country, that you want a thriving economy, or that you want safety for yourselves and your family.
3. Call out a point the person made that taught you something, even if you disagree with others. This shows you value the conversation and are open to learning from the other person. It fosters trust and allows the conversation to continue with a mutually respectful tone.
4. Mention that you disagree, but frame it in such a way that shows it's a collaborative conversation and you welcome their opinions on your perspective. Bring up your key points and explain why you think this way, but keep an open mind as to why people might disagree. Try to get to the root of your beliefs as another way of finding common ground—the deeper we go, the more we have in common.
5. Welcome feedback by asking genuine questions.
Do what's best for you
This isn't a one-size-fits-all checklist. In situations that are emotionally triggering, Paxton said to not push your own emotional energy past what you can handle.
“Sometimes the most effective tool of conscious discourse is knowing when to remove yourself from the situation,” she said. “If the person provoking you is only seeking to hurt you (either emotionally or physically), then it is not wise to continue the conversation. In any case, do what is best for you.”