There are times when a heated verbal tirade becomes a physical conflict, and in many cases, or probably most cases, it becomes so without any necessity.
If you are in your right mind, then you will be able to see that sometimes people are just blowing off steam. I myself am guilty of needing to vent from time to time, and with my size and volume, I have had people take my venting much more seriously than they needed to. I am not alone in this.
So, how exactly are we to handle a situation of a person looking to all the world like they are about to kill someone, but in fact are just venting? Is there a way to tell whether or not they will turn physically violent?
There are some steps to take that will buy time and give you a ton of information that you will not get if you insist on shutting them up.
The Lost Art of Listening
People, generally speaking, are not very good at listening in order to understand. More often, we listen just enough to begin to formulate our clever, witty, or sarcastic response.
Do you want to know the truth about this?
When you are listening only to respond, you are not listening. This is part of a habit of wanting to hear yourself talk.
When viewed from the point of de-escalating potential conflict, our personal opinions do not matter. If the priority is personal safety, then we need to be able to set aside our personal problems and work toward a solution.
A major step in finding solutions will be in listening to what the other person’s problem is. Not our projection, not our bias, their problem.
How are we to listen?
In broad terms, listening can be divided into two types, active and passive. In this post we will look at active listening because it works in your favor when you need to defuse a tense situation before it turns physical. With passive listening you are giving the appearance of listening, but to hours later you will be unable to say what the person was trying to communicate to you. Active listening is when you are actually trying to understand what the other person in trying to make you understand.
The sticking point seems to be the fear and the misconception that understanding what they are trying to tell you is the same as agreeing with their point of view, argument, or religious/political doctrine. It is not at all the same thing, but we tend in our time to think of the two as being the same.
Recognize and Acknowledge
When a person is communicating to you in an angry state of mind, you have to be careful. But there are some methods to increase your safety as well as better your odds at getting out of it without things going physical.
One step you can take is to simply recognize and acknowledge their point. You do not have to tell them they are right, just allow them their say. Ask questions to force them to clarify their message.
See From Their Perspective
In order to take things a step further, you will need to actually allow yourself to see things from their point of view. This can and does get uncomfortable in some situations, but when you need to go further than simply acknowledging, and must let them know that you see what they are trying to say or prove, you will need to get uncomfortable and figure out how they see the situation.
There is a snag that you can run into, and will run into repeatedly when trying to acquire this skill; projection.
Projection is where you assume that you know what the other person is thinking based on personal biases and then projecting this idea into the situation. When someone pulls a gun and tells you to hand over your wallet, anger may rise up at the insult of being forced to hand over your hard earned money to a person who is too lazy to work and earn. You may even mouth off at the mugger.
Laziness does not really come into play with a lot of criminals. One may argue lack of education, and one would be right a good percentage of the time. But if you were to understand that the other person has simply learned that violence, or threats of violence is a simple way of getting what they want, it changes the perception of the situation.
Of course, don’t be foolish enough to think that this changed perception decreases the immediate danger. You are still being robbed. And there is still a gun pointed at you. But maybe, just maybe this different perception might keep you from going on a verbal tirade about how lazy he is and how he should go get a real job. Maybe this perception will allow you the understanding that he is acting in what he understands to be his profession. And since he is the expert, you should know your role. In case there is anything unclear, there is a certain set of expected behaviors in these situations. The robber knows that he threatens violence and gives you a way out; give me your wallet or I’ll kill you. It is at this point that you are supposed to hand over your wallet. Deviation from this routine is not advised.
In lower levels of conflict, if you are able to see their point, and I mean really see things from their perspective, you can tone down the rhetoric and really begin to defuse the tenseness of the situation.
Once you allow yourself to see things from their point of view, you can then use a technique called mirroring. Mirroring is where you state your understanding of what they are trying to communicate, clearly and without sarcasm, and follow up with something along the lines of is that what you are upset about/telling me/trying to say? Or at the beginning of the mirroring, use the phrase correct me if I am wrong, but are you saying/telling me that…
Keep control over your tone of voice, it is very easy when using this technique to allow the stress of the situation turn your voice into a tone of confrontation.
Mirroring gives you a chance to really see if you get their point or if you are projecting.
But there is another reason for doing this – it buys time. When men are angry, we get a big dose of adrenaline. But men burn through it pretty quickly, so if you keep a man calmly speaking long enough the rage is lessened.
There are situations where this too is ill advised.
Off the top of my head:
- In the aforementioned mugging
- In situations where you have not yet deescalated yourself (the continued conversation will still be too heated to calm anyone down.)
- When the violent action is being done by a woman (yes, this does happen, and women do not burn through adrenaline like men do. They stay mad forever).
But in many of the lower-level conflicts we deal with day to day, we can use this to de-escalate and defuse entirely without it ever becoming a real conflict or violence.
And finally, the most important technique afforded to you because you know how to listen is that you can turn attention toward solutions to the problem. If you really listened and tried to see things from their point of view, you will be able to turn your attention, as well as their attention toward possible solutions.
People deep into monkey brain thinking see only one solution to the problem. Anyone looking at the same situation with a clear head will probably be able to find several other options which are also less likely to send anyone to jail.
Obviously, this will not save you in every possible situation imaginable. There are plenty of scenarios where everything here will do you no good at all, and could make things worse. But in lower levels of conflict, when you still have the option to defuse, these steps can help. Still, success in this is not guaranteed, and everything is probably going to fail is you have not followed the previous steps. You are not going to be able to think clearly if you failed to de-escalate yourself in the early stages. Also, if you projected your ideas and assigned motivations for the antagonist’s actions, then you will not be able to offer solutions because you still will not know what they are seeing as the real problem. If you offer solutions to things that they are not seeing as the problem you will come off as condescending. When you turn condescending toward a person in full monkey mode; pile of wood, gallon of gasoline, home-made torch…