Don’t Make it Worse

Fumes are flammable. Be careful.

The first, and probably most important step in preventing a moment of conflict from becoming physical violence is understanding the basic rule – Don’t make it worse.

While this may seem at first glance as a no-brainer, there are mental processes that make this a lot harder than it appears on the surface. Common sense is not always common practice.

For a start, we all have that inner monkey that is always concerned about how we appear. This mischievous rascal seems to take everything personally, and also needs to get the last word in every time, pose the wittiest comeback every time, and offer up the most comeuppienced comeuppance of all time, every time.

This causes a lot of trouble.

In this post we are going to look at the most critical stage of conflict de-escalation, the stage where you must de-escalate yourself.

De-escalation Basics

My Dad was almost an amateur pyro. He loved to start fires. Real fires, not the figurative.

We worked in construction. Anytime the temps dipped lower than the mid-sixties, he wanted a fire before we started working.

One time he poured an entire gallon of gasoline on a pile of wood, paper and plywood. There was only one problem, he didn’t want to be the one to ignite this mess.

Somehow I ended up with the unenviable task. I resisted, but several button-pushing insults about my cowardice and questions about my manhood were enough of an ego bruise to get me to go ahead and light the fire.

So, I took a newspaper, rolled it up in the shape of a torch, lit it with his cigarette lighter, and approached the extremely flammable pile.

As I reached forward, I was suddenly struck with the realization of just how bad an idea this was. I am sure you have had one of those what-the-hell-am-I-doing?!? moments.

This was one of those. A moment where I realized with amazing clarity that I was making a huge and incredibly stupid mistake.

Of course it was too late. The flame from my make-shift torch had not yet touched anything when it ignited the fumes from the massive amount of gasoline.

When I think about it I can still hear the sound.


For a moment I saw a fireball approaching me. Then I saw nothing.

I was amazed at the fact that I was not harmed by the fire I saw coming right at me before I closed my eyes. Not a mark! I credited the lack of injury to my awesome ninja skills.

That afternoon, I found out why my Dad kept giggling every time he looked at me for the rest of the day.

I saw my face in the mirror as I was about to go shower after work. Something was different. It took me a moment to realize that I looked really funny without eyebrows.

I use this story often to relay the fact that people are very capable of walking right into situations they know are not good, situations where they honestly know better, and yet they just let ego push them ahead into the mess.

At least for me, all I lost were eyebrows, and they eventually grew back.

Too often, people lose their lives or freedom from stupid mistakes.

In the case of the story I related above, I have two things to point out.

First, I was prompted into a very stupid action, and my ego made me feel compelled to take the suggested action. I was not forced, I let ego control my actions. Second, I knew there was gasoline soaked wood. I knew there was too much gasoline for this to be a safe action.

But I brought a fire to the pile of gasoline soaked wood anyway.

That isn’t really any different from shooting your mouth off at someone who is building themselves up to hit you. Or flipping off a stranger in traffic who cut you off and brought you to a point where you honestly believe that cutting him off in return, and accentuating the move with a middle finger salute was a good idea.

Fumes are flammable. Be careful.

When we speak of de-escalation basics we are looking first and foremost at ourselves.

What are we doing that might make the situation worse? And can we regain our composure to give ourselves an opportunity to calm down and make better choices?

These are probably the most critical steps we can take in situations where we need to use de-escalation strategies.

If you are a walking powder-keg, there is little to no chance that you can effectively manage the tricky task of defusing a tense situation.

Bottom line – you need to defuse that inner time bomb before you can ever hope to defuse another person’s inner time bomb.

You First

De-escalate yourself first, then you can go to work on getting the rest of the situation under control.

It is important to understand two factors involved, and unlike the psychological factors of the inner monkey, these are biological processes. As such, understanding what is happening can allow you the chance to exert some control over yourself, if you act quickly.