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“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” James 1:19-20
Emotions and tempers flare quickly in our busy, high-stress world, and even well-intentioned efforts to defuse interpersonal conflict can backfire. When tensions run high, often the best short-term solution is conflict de-escalation, not conflict resolution. De-escalation helps ensure the immediate conflict does not spiral out of control. Conflict resolution is a longer-term process that is more likely to be successful if early interactions are handled in a thoughtful, pastoral way. Cultivating skills for empathic listening and remembering to focus on the person, not the problem, can help lower the temperature of a difficult situation.
The guiding principle for navigating interpersonal conflict should be pastoral, not personal. Our very human reaction to being challenged is to stand our ground and insist on our own point of view. When the other person becomes upset or angry, however, it is helpful to put those personal feelings aside until they can be addressed in a less emotionally charged setting.
In the heat of the moment it is tempting to stop listening and focus instead on choosing the best words to “fight back.” When de-escalation is the goal, it is important to listen even more carefully than usual. Seek to understand what the person is feeling and why they are behaving in this way, and then respond accordingly. Empathy is key: even if you do not agree with the person, expressing genuine understanding about why he is upset can help minimize the potential for escalation.
The more often we can get the other person to say yes, the more quickly the conflict will de-escalate. It can help to ask clarifying questions and make summarizing statements that prompt agreement: “You are feeling frustrated because of these three things that have happened, is that correct?” This also reinforces the feeling that you understand what they are saying. It is always helpful to make a personal connection; just using the person’s name when you address him or her can often ease some of the immediate tension in the room.
It is important to be aware of how this type of encounter activates our own negative emotions. Identify and understand your personal triggers: what words or actions are more likely to put you on the defensive? How does your body language and tone of voice change when you are challenged? If you do become agitated or angry, try these quick steps to become more physically and emotionally balanced:
Avoid clichés and condescending or dismissive language; telling a person to “calm down” can often produce the opposite result. Careful, empathic listening also gives you more time to collect your thoughts, breathe and respond calmly.
Give yourself permission to end the conversation if the person is not responding to your attempts to defuse the tension. Ask for a “time-out”: suggest that the conversation be continued at another time and make an appointment to speak further about the issue. Using the word “we” suggests a shared solution — “What do we need to do to move things forward?” De-escalation will not necessarily solve the big-picture problems that might have led to the current confrontation. It can, however, help shift the conversation into a healthier space and ultimately facilitate long term conflict resolution.
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