Words matter. Tone matters. Body language and facial expressions matter. But in general, the words chosen and then applied to tone, body language and facial expressions can either be helpful or hurtful. With this in mind the commentary that follows takes a look at what words can be used to assist with de-escalation to help prevent conflict or to reduce the tensions if in a conflict.
Before you start
These questions and statements below may provide a basis for what needs to be asked or said to help de-escalate the situation, but there is something even more important. That is your attitude and their attitude. Are the parties approaching the disagreement as fight? Or are they approaching the disagreement as an opportunity?
Attitude matters. By taking actions to slow down, being empathetic, listening actively, and being courteous this goes a long way towards lowering the tension between the parties.
In order to listen to the other party, practice the listening techniques of paraphrasing, asking open ended questions, summarizing, and empathizing. Your natural inclination if you feel like you are being attacked verbally is to fire back. With practice emotional intelligence can be applied and you can coach yourself to suspend your negative judgment and not prepare a rebuttal. Instead, you can state what you think you heard and let the other party talk. Let the other party present their perspective for a good 10 minutes. Only ask clarifying questions, not questions to refute what the other party had to say.
By reflecting on your attitude to be there to help, collaborate, and work towards a solution rather than a fight, this can be a real game changer. Give yourself positive self-talk using your own name. For example, I use phrases like:
“Stay focused, Mike.”
“Mike, be hard on the problem, and be gentle on the people.”
“Mike, remain calm.”
“Mike, you can do this.”
“What else should I be asking?”
Given this introduction here is some background as to why I wanted to offer this commentary to help you.
As a qualified mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court and having conducted over 2,500 mediations, negotiations, and facilitations in my career I am continually learning. Having heard several recent presentations by speakers at the Minnesota State Bar Association Alternative Dispute Resolution Section monthly meetings and having done some additional research on this topic I wanted to share some thoughts that I think will help me and may help you to prevent a conflict and to potentially help de-escalate a situation that has rising tensions or has become a conflict or dispute.
Some questions and phrases that may help you
Early on or even after a dispute has become more intense a phrase that can be very helpful is:
“Let’s talk this out.”
This article shares that his phrase is often used by emotionally intelligent people to resolve conflict and to help people work together. Ignoring personal differences will only cause them to become worse. This phrase may help bridge the gap and if the parties can take the time to listen to each other, this phrase could open the door to providing very good results. One’s attitude and listening are keys to success. This phrase allows the parties to potentially listen to each other and work towards a solution.
Other phrases that demonstrate an interest in understanding:
“I do not assume from my experiences to know your experiences.”
“Help me understand.”
This can be particularly helpful across gender, race, age, and sexual orientation. Admitting that our differences in experiences may be part of the issue, can help reduce tensions.
As the author of The Collaboration Effect I give away a pocket guide entitled The Collaboration Effect and I offer a handout on de-escalation. In the pocket guide are some questions related to listening actively that I want to share with you that I have found particularly useful.
My number one question in a mediation is:
“What would you like to have happen?”
I often follow that up with a statement of “tell me more.”
Other questions you may find helpful are:
“What would it take for you to feel satisfied?”
“What haven’t we covered that you would like me to know?”
“What can I do to help you?”
You can use these or similar phrases if you find yourself in a mediating role or in a conflict yourself. If possible, ask questions that help the other party to say “yes.” Why? If you can phrase questions that will allow the other party to say “yes” there are certain chemicals and hormones released in the brain that will allow the other party to be more receptive to you. Questions might be something like:
“Would you like to have closure?”
“Would you like us to have less conflict with each other?’
“Would you like to work with me to find a better way for us to collaborate?’
“Do you think it is in both of our best interests to work more collaboratively?”
Why is this important?
The last thing you want to do is talk. The commentary offered above is to help you listen. A person that has been listened to is more apt to listen to you. As you listen and ask questions that initially focus on what the other party wants to say, then move into the why, and end with the how we can work together to come up with a better solution. We can work together well as a team.
About the author
Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]