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Learn The Art of Verbal Conflict De-escalation

Updated: Feb 19

Most people deal in the day to day world using natural language and often times it's disastrous. Since words can't be taken back.

Words have tremendous power. You can die using the wrong words, you can be fired, or sued.

"Words can cut deeper and fester longer than any sword known to man"

So what can you do in order to help de-escalate a conflict situation? Here are some tips, and remember, this isn’t a step by step list, but rather a menu of options that may prove useful.

Recommendations may contradict themselves depending on where you are in the engagement.

Beforehand- Appear as a hard target but do not look threatening.

Appear calm and self-assured even if you don’t feel it.

Maintain no eye contact.

Maintain situational awareness

Maintain a neutral facial expression.

Place your hands in front of your body in an open and relaxed position.

Maintain a public space distance, which is 12 feet or more.

We will divide these into two categories. First, you have the ability of free movement or to come and go as you please. The next category is if you have limited or restricted movement for any number of reasons.

"words are the lowest form of communication" Fausto Alarcon

Conflict De-escalation When you have the ability to move freely.

Do not engage simply move through the area that the opponent is operating in. Any engagement will draw you in and trap you and that's their goal. Think of it as quicksand the more you try to move and get out the quicker you sink and get more trapped. Anything you say will trap you in further.

They may use any number of fishing tactics to engage with you. Keep moving!

Conflict De-escalation When you have limited movement or restricted.

  • Create arms distance between you and the opponent.

  • Bring your hands into a ready stance or thinking man's stance. Link

  • Inventory your surroundings. Stairs chairs tables people around.

  • What's behind you and move if dangerous.

  • Is the opponent by himself get a 360-degree view.

  • Can you see his fingers are they empty?

  • Move toward an exit or go back the way you came.

First, take a breath and calm yourself before communicating with the person. If you’re upset, it’s only going to escalate the situation. Use a low, dull tone of voice and don’t get defensive even if the insults are directed at you.

Verbal Insults Are The Number 1 Assault In The Country.

People will insult you only if it works.

  • Generally, two-way people deal with insults

  • Grin and bear it and ignore it

  • Get sucked in by the other person's dynamics and react and snap.

  • The third option is defection. Why it's best?

  • It will make you feel good because it empowers you!

  • Dis-empowers the other person

Conflict De-escalation Language is a performing language. It uses words shaped to get the goal in front of you done. Think of it as mastery through adaptation. You become who you have to be to the situation in front of you. Never get upset, get more polite- tactical civility.

How Do You Tell The Difference Between Dangerous Natural Language and Conflict De-escalation Language?

Natural Language

  • It Feels Good

  • Emotional response

  • Knee jerk response

  • Primal

Professional Conflict De-escalation Language

Conflict De-escalation Language is stored in your toolbox like a screwdriver. It's not organic its chosen or selected.

The natural language feels good when saying it and Conflict De-escalation Language has no emotional attachment.

Example Phrases of Conflict De-escalation Language That Will Help You Deflect and Move

I appreciated that.

  • Sorry, you feel that way.

  • I might feel that way too.

  • My wife would agree with you.

  • I can see you upset I might be as well If was you.

  • I would be upset also.

  • I hear that.

  • I can see your tougher than I am.

  • Is there anything I can say or do to make it up (Helps them save face)

Ways to Fail at Conflict De-escalation

  • Insult Them - Insults give people power and strengthen their resolve. Civility weakens them.

  • Letting your ego show.

  • The tone is equal to the attitude displayed, its the unsaid expressed.

  • Never express true feelings unless they're positive.

  • Reacting- Means to act in opposition, as against some force. It's better to respond or say something in return.

Additional Verbal De-escalation Techniques

  • Do not challenge psychotic thinking.

  • Do not argue or threaten.

  • Avoid sarcasm, humor, or laughing.

  • Announce actions beforehand.

Be aware of what may worsen the person’s fear and aggression.

  • Comply with reasonable requests.

  • Listen to learn and listen patiently.

  • Problem-solve. Offer solutions instead of trying to take control.

  • Ask how you can help.

  • Affirm the person’s positive qualities.

  • Offer the person a face-saving way out.

Make a personal connection. Something as simple as asking, “What’s your name?” can diffuse a situation quickly. People respond positively to their own name and can make the dialogue more personal.

Conflict De-escalation Communication SKills

  • Paraphrase "Let me see if I understand what you just said.

  • Maintain limited eye contact and be at the same eye level.

  • If he/she needs to stand, stand up also.

  • Don’t point your fingers at the person.

  • Avoid excessive gesturing, pacing, fidgeting, or weight shifting.

  • Maintain a personal space distance, of at least is 5 feet or more.

Many verbal & non-verbal cues to be mindful of as situations unfold. Research has shown that people communicate anywhere from 35% -70% non verbally. Reading people is a science that can be learned through training and practice.

Understanding facial expressions that only appear for tenths of a second can mean a lot to those who know what to look for. Nonverbal communication expert David Matsumoto, PhD, talks about why nonverbal communication is so important in everything from intercultural exchanges to police investigations.

Most people don’t even see them. Some see something that has changed on the other person's face, but they don’t know exactly what it was that was changed. Other people do see them but they don’t know what they’re seeing. They are called Microexpressions

Microexpressions are unconscious, extremely quick, sometimes full-face expressions of human emotion. Oftentimes they’re subtle expressions of whats the person is really feeling. However they’re extremely quick and because they’re unconscious, when they occur, they occur many times less than half a second – sometimes as fast as one-tenth of a second or even one-fifteenth of a second.

Let's take a look at some examples;

Learn The Art of Verbal Conflict De-escalation
Learn The Art of Verbal Conflict De-escalation

Let's move from the facial microexpressions to a spot some signs of conflict escalation of body language. Here are some likely examples;

  • Clenching fists or tightening and untightening their jaw.

  • Sudden change in body language or tone used during a conversation.

  • The person starts pacing or fidgeting.Any change in the type of eye contact.

  • The “Rooster Stance” – chest protruding out more and arms more away from the body.

  • Disruptive behaviors – Such as yelling, bullying, actively defying, or refusing to comply with rules.

Conflict Language Scenarios in Public

Potential Opponent: “What the hell are you looking at?” You: “That shirt man, that’s a really cool shirt? Where did you get that?”

Potential Opponent: “What’s your problem?!?!?” You: “My dad died last night and I just came in here to have a drink.”

Potential Opponent: “Are you looking at my girl??!?” You: “Is her name Lisa she looks like someone I grew up with?

How To Calm People Down

Don't tell them to calm down. Project empathy or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

How to Be Empathetic

Understand where the person is coming from. Rage, Fear, Drugs Alcohol, Mental Illness. It doesn't mean you agree or condone what their behavior, remember this is a performance.

Listening to the person's concerns. - Acknowledge the other person’s feelings without passing judgment on them.

Do not say you understand, show you understand by paraphrasing. Say what they mean and not what they say in your words. Its a blend of your words with their meaning. Ask open-ended questions. Ask for their ideas or solutions. Help them talk out angry feelings rather than act on them.

Gently move the conversation to the future, create hope, and you make yourself less threatening. Choose words like “what” and “we” helps include the person in those future plans.

It is very difficult for people to be angry at you if they are agreeing with you so try to get them to say yes.At some point, the process will progress to a reasonable end or you will have to take the next steps.

Key Principles of Conflict De-Escalation

  1. Active Listening: The cornerstone of conflict de-escalation is active listening. It involves genuinely hearing and understanding the other person's perspective, emotions, and concerns. This demonstrates respect and shows a willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue.

  2. Empathy: Empathy involves putting oneself in the other person's shoes to understand their feelings and emotions. Demonstrating empathy can help diffuse hostility and foster a more compassionate approach to conflict resolution.

  3. Maintaining Calm: Keeping one's own emotions in check is crucial. Responding with anger or aggression can exacerbate the situation. A calm demeanor can influence the tone of the interaction and encourage a rational discussion.

  4. Effective Communication: Clear and respectful communication is essential. Expressing oneself assertively rather than aggressively promotes mutual understanding and reduces the chances of misinterpretation.

  5. Seeking Common Ground: Identifying shared interests or goals can create a foundation for finding solutions that benefit all parties involved. This shifts the focus from competition to collaboration.

Practical Techniques for Conflict De-Escalation

  1. Stay Calm: When confronted with conflict, take a moment to breathe and compose yourself. Responding impulsively can escalate the situation.

  2. Use "I" Statements: Express your feelings and concerns using "I" statements to avoid blaming or accusing the other person. This encourages open dialogue without triggering defensiveness.

  3. Acknowledge Emotions: Validate the other person's emotions by acknowledging their feelings, even if you disagree with their perspective.

  4. Ask Open-Ended Questions: Encourage the other person to share more by asking open-ended questions that require thoughtful responses. This can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of their viewpoint.

  5. Offer Solutions: Propose possible solutions that address both parties' needs. This shifts the focus from the conflict itself to finding common ground.

Nothing can guarantee that a conflict de-escalation will proceed productively. The use of physical force as your first response requires allot of consideration. We can all agree to it not worth going to jail for a bar fight so let's take them off the table.

If you are still restricted from leaving and things go south you may need to make a decision on compliance or escalation.

Conflict de-escalation is a valuable skill that promotes effective communication, understanding, and harmonious relationships. People that actively listen, demonstrate empathy, and use constructive communication techniques can prevent conflicts from escalating into harmful situations. Practicing conflict de-escalation not only contributes to personal protection but also creates a more peaceful and cooperative environment.

Additional Verbal Jujitsu Conflict De-escalation Resources

The late George J. Thompson PH.D. (1941-2011) created the internationally recognized training program in Tactical Communication known as “Verbal Judo.” He authored the bestselling book, “Verbal Judo The Gentle Art of Persuasion.”

Violence Prevention and Conflict Management Resources

The Center for Violence Prevention and Self Defense is a non profit 501(C)(3) with a mission to stop violence by educating at-risk people and empower them with the skills needed to protect themselves by providing online and live training. 

Through workshops and seminars we educate participants about violence prevention and guide them on assessing risk factors while establishing boundaries in relationships. Additionally practical self defense classes equip people with hands on skills and effective strategies to prevent and intervene in cases of assault.


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