Resolving Conflict and Preventing Violence

What Can You Do When You Find Yourself in a Conflict That May Lead to Violence? How Can You Best Behave to Calm and Resolve Such a Situation?

It helps to understand that everyone has three modes of behavior (some people say that we all have three parts to ourself):

  • Child mode — focused mainly on our own needs and desires; demanding; can be very emotional or easily hurt; may not stop to find out the facts of a situation; acts impulsively
  • Parent mode — thinks that we know best; judges; tries to punish or scold
  • Adult mode — deals with situations as they really are; tries to solve problems; speaks quietly and calmly; listens carefully to others; empathizes and tries to see other points of view

Usually, a potentially violent conflict results when both people are behaving in child or parent mode. The conflict can be resolved or diffused best when at least one person is in an adult behavior mode.

How Can I Tell When Someone Is on the Verge of Violence?

First, trust your instincts: If you are feeling frightened — even if you don't know why — it is good to be cautious. (Later, you can talk over your reaction with someone.) Don't do anything to provoke the other person.

Specific signs of impending violent behavior:

  • Fixed stare
  • Muscles tense
  • Fists clenched
  • Shortness of breath
  • Red face
  • Loud voice
  • Standing too close

How Can I React Without Provoking Violence?

  • Take a deep breath. Calm yourself. Avoid overreacting.
  • Speak quietly and calmly.
  • Listen carefully and considerately to the other person without interrupting. Hear him or her out. Keeping quiet allows the other person to explain more fully and to think about what he or she is saying with less pressure.
  • Respect the other person in your viewpoint and your language: Address the other person as "Sir" or "Miss."
  • Try to repeat what you understand about the other person's viewpoint. Ask questions that reflect your understanding and incorporate it in your question: "I understand that you need a letter from this office. Do I have that right?" This will help the other person feel understood and engage him or her in a rational discussion.
  • Suggest a calm, problem-solving approach to the situation: "Miss, if we sit down together, I'm pretty sure that we can talk this situation out."
  • Be empathic. Imagine how you would feel in the other person's place.
  • Try not to be judgmental. Don't do or say anything to embarrass or humiliate the other person. Don't accuse, punish or scold.
  • Don't crowd the other person. Stand at least two or three feet from them. Respect their personal space. "Squaring off" with the other person (standing close, directly face-to-face) is too challenging and can lead to escalation. Stand to one side or at an angle.
  • Allow the other person to vent his or her feelings as much as necessary.
  • Ignore challenging, insulting or threatening behavior from the other person. Redirect the discussion to a cooperative approach to the issue. Answering challenges promotes a power struggle.
  • Keep your body language, posture, gestures, movement and tone of voice nonthreatening. The other person is more likely to respond to these nonverbal aspects of your behavior than to the explicit content of your statements.
  • Try to avoid an audience. Onlookers can make it more difficult for people to "back down." In some cases they can actually incite the other person to intensify the argument. Suggest that you go somewhere else to discuss the problem. (Don't go somewhere isolated where you would be unable to get help if you need it.)
  • Keep your statements simple, clear and direct. Avoid complicated, confusing explanations and big, obscure or pretentious words.
  • Don't take anything personally. Understand that people say things that they don't really mean when angry.
  • If the other person becomes extremely hostile, try to have someone else available so that you are not alone.
  • You may not always be able to give the other person what he or she wants, but offer something that you can give. Emphasize what you can do.
  • If an argument becomes heated, put off your need to make your point or express your feelings until another time and place.
  • Don't rush. Take as much time as needed for the situation. Trying to hurry usually makes the situation worse.
  • Give the other person an exit. Don't back the other person into a corner. Leave the door open to discuss the problem further at a later time. Tell him or her that you will think it over. Don't insist on a final resolution immediately.
  • Use humor (but never at the other person's expense). Make fun of yourself, if you can.
  • Tell the other person directly that you don't want to fight — that you want to resolve the situation in an friendly manner.
  • Apologize for anything that you might have done that offended the other person (even if you don't think you did anything offensive).