Overwhelmed by Anger Around Us? Thoughts on How to De-escalate a Situation

Image by Uriel Soberanes.

I leaned halfway out of the car window, furiously shaking a finger at the car zooming from behind us in the next lane. “You stay there!” I roared. “Let my mother out!”

We were on the freeway and my mom had pulled to the shoulder to let an ambulance pass. As soon as it did, other cars took advantage of the newly cleared space. They zipped by so fast we couldn’t get back on the road. I was enraged by the injustice – we had done the right thing, but these other cars were cheating – and could hardly see straight.

It felt good to be angry. It felt powerful, righteous, energy-filled.

So many things are making us angry these days, and many of us like being angry. I get it. But does it get us what we need? In my case, the car stopped but my mom was so surprised by my behavior (I’m normally very laid back) that she didn’t move. The other car picked up its pace again and sped past.

We all know that moment of extreme anger. Emotions flood us and we lose our ability to think rationally or creatively. We even lose ability to hear the other person. Not hearing or thinking? That’s no way to resolve a situation.

So how do we de-escalate, particularly this angry-making election year?

First, we can learn to de-escalate ourselves. When we start getting too angry, we can take a few deep breaths. This sounds cliché, but deep breathing triggers our body’s relaxation response. Our heartbeat slows, muscles relax, and cortisol levels lower. We become rational and able to listen again.

We also can learn to de-escalate with another person. Psychologists have been studying conversational receptiveness, a concept based on our fundamental human need to feel like we are being heard. Researchers paired people with opposing views to discuss hot button issues, then analyzed the conversation patterns. It turns out that you have to give something to get something. People who used receptive language, showing the other person that they were truly listening, were rated as better teammates and advisors.

What is receptive language? Psychologist Julia Vinson describes the HEAR model.

“Hedge” your claims with milder words like might and most rather than combative words like definitely and all. This shows you don’t think you have all the answers.

“Emphasize” any areas of agreement, even if they’re not the central issue.

“Acknowledge” what the other person is saying by restating what they told you. That shows you’re listening closely.

“Reframe” things positively using yes, should, and can rather than no and wrong.

In the middle of a conflict, it can be hard to really care about what the other person is thinking. But often we can’t afford to destroy relationships with family or coworkers. Happily, using these conversation techniques even if your heart isn’t completely in them can slow the conflict and make dynamics more positive.

Then you can take advantage of what other researchers found – that reflecting on a conflict for even a few minutes afterwards helps us learn how to disagree better. We can ask ourselves “what was the conflict about, how ideally should conflicts be handled, and how can we use this information to handle disagreements better in the future?”

We all can learn these de-escalation skills, including our leaders. And we should. Otherwise, the cars in the next lane will just speed up.

Melinda Burrell, PhD is a humanitarian aid worker who studies polarization and trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.