Monday, April 14, 2008

De-Escalating Arguments and Social Violence

By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2006, All Rights Reserved

Everyone should know how to de-escalate an argument; if you know how to de-escalate arguments you can stop an aggressive person before they get to the violent stage. You should always assume that every argument can end in violence and be prepared to both calm the other person down as well as deal with them if they become violent. Just knowing how to de-escalate arguments can stop the majority of assaults both by acquaintances and strangers.

A 1986 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that:

"Over 80 percent of homicides noted during our study occurred during arguments or altercations. [I]n cases of assault, people tend to reach for the most lethal weapon readily available. Easy access to firearms may therefore be particularly dangerous in households prone to domestic violence."

Make no doubt, the time in your life when you are most likely to be assaulted, murdered, robbed, or raped is during or just after an argument. Often people get so angry that they are driven to violence and often pick up the closest thing to use as a weapon. Sometimes people do walk away only to find themselves in a kitchen and they end up grabbing a steak knife and coming back to settle their perceived injustice. This is why the most common knife people are stabbed with in the U.S. is a steak knife.

Calming someone down and de-escalating a potentially violent situation is not as hard as many people make it. You don't need to go and get a fancy degree in psychology, all you need are the nine simple rules listed below and a couple of tried-and-true techniques.

The Eleven Rules Of De-Escalation

People get upset and aggressive for one reason: they feel that they are being attacked in some way. Someone may feel that you are attacking their intelligence or integrity and so they get defensive, and then as the situation escalates they get loud and aggressive and then perhaps violent. Since it is the fact that they feel that they are being attacked in some way that is making them defensive, in order to calm them down you have to express to them that you are not attacking them, personally or otherwise. In order to effectively express this to them there are eleven rules you must follow:

1.) See the two of you as not combatants but rather teammates trying to solve a common problem. If someone is arguing with you it is because they see a problem and the only way to calm them down and get cooperation for them it to address the problem, as THEY see it. Try to get to describe the problem as clearly as possible and listen without interrupting. Even if the person is delirious, on drugs, or just making things up go with their understanding of the problem, because even if they are wrong or crazy what they describe as a problem is the actual problem as they see it.

Build the sense of teamwork by using words like “we” and “us” when speaking with them. Listen to their problem and when you try to help them solve the problem as they see it you will start to get them to calm down and cooperate with you.

2.) Respect personal space by giving them 5-6 feet. Your job is to make the other individual feel safe and that it is ok for them to stop being defensive, and one of the easiest ways to do the opposite of that is to encroach upon their personal space. Everyone has a space around them that extends approximately 3 or 4 feet outwards (roughly their arms length) that is considered theirs and you want to make sure that you stay out of that area. Stand back 5 or 6 feet from them to give them plenty of room and allow them to feel comfortable talking to you. Doing this also gives you the benefit of having greater reaction time in the event that they do become violent.

3.) Have non-aggressive body language and if possible angle your body to the side. You want to act and appear non-aggressive because if you appear aggressive or like you’re trying to assert dominance in any way the other person may respond by trying to do the same. Aggressive body language includes things like staring with a fixed gaze, tightening facial muscles, raising your chin, lifting your shoulders, and sticking out your elbows, so you want to do the opposite. Make sure that your gaze is relaxed, your chin is down, your shoulders are lowered normally, and your elbows are not flaring out. If it is possible you want to turn your body to the side so that you are at a 45-90 degree angle to them. The reason for this is that if you are slightly turned to the side you are not perceived as towering over them or trapping them. By turning they will not feel like you are blocking their escape and this will help to avoid triggering their defensive instinct. When you do this they can turn around and leave as well as walk by you.

4.) Take time to think before you speak. The natural reaction is to say whatever comes to mind but you want to avoid doing that. Every time you get ready to say something you should stop and pause for a second to reflect on whether it is the right thing to say, and then open your mouth.

5.) Be calm and talk in a tone that's lower than the one the other person is using. The angrier and louder you get the angrier and louder they will tend to get. What you need to do is relax, be calm, look them in the eye, and speak to them in a calm and even manner. Your natural reaction will be to match their volume but you want to speak calmly and in a tone lower than the one their using because this will help to calm them down.

6.) Deflect insults with deflecting statements. During an argument or emotional situation people will often insult you. The two worst things you can do are to respond to them or to ignore them. If you respond to their insults you can in feed into their emotional energy and get angry yourself; if you ignore their insults you can make them angry because they feel you are ignoring them and they may become more emotional or get violent. Instead what you should do is first realize that the insults come not from the person but from the emotions and often the person will deeply regret them later on when they calm down. Don’t take them personally; after all it is not them insulting you it is their emotions.

Using a deflecting statement shows them that you heard their insult but it bypasses it and gets back to the task of addressing the core issue. The two I use the most are: “I appreciate your opinion but…” or “I appreciate that.” You could also say, “I respect your opinion but…” or “I respect that.” Use these statements then immediately get back to dealing with the issue causing the argument or emotional situation.

7.) Don't talk in absolutes and don't use the words "always" and "never". This is one of the biggest mistakes that people make when arguing. Never ever tell someone that they "always do this" or that they "never do that" because this will just serve to anger them and chances are that there are exceptions to disprove the allegation. Using these words will almost always result in an escalation of the situation so instead tell someone that they "usually do this" or they "usually do that".

8.) Phrase everything as "I feel...". One of the easiest ways to get someone mad is to accuse them of something, and if you repeatedly accuse them of things you will almost always cause them to get defensive. Never ever say, "You don't do this", "You don't like me" etc., because this puts the focus on them and their perceived shortcomings which normally makes them get defensive. Instead you should say, "I feel that you don't do this" or "I feel that you don't like me". By phrasing everything in relation to you and your feelings you take the focus off of them of put it on you and the way you feel. Just by taking everything you want to say to them and phrasing it to them as "I feel that..." you will help them to avoid getting defensive and open the lines of communication.

9.) Always talk about the specific behavior you have issue with instead of talking about them personally. In any situation your goal is not to run the person down, it is to address and hopefully get them to change a behavior. If someone does something you don't like you shouldn't talk to them about how you don't like them and how horrible they are for doing it, rather you should talk about the specific behavior that you have issue with and how you don't like it. By doing this you're not attacking them personally you're only talking about the fact that you don't like something they did. Instead of saying something like, "What's wrong with you, why would you do that?” you might instead say, "I don't like what happened, that behavior needs to change". Always restrict your focus to the behavior you didn't like and don't talk about them personally.

10.) Focus on the future instead of the past. Every second you spend talking to them about the issue that's responsible for the argument is a second the person could snap and get violent. Instead of spending time talking about the past which cannot be changed you should talk about the future which will give you or the other person a chance to do things differently. Rather than fight about what has happened switch the focus to next time. You might say, "Next time this situation comes up this is how I will handle it" or "Next time this situation comes up this is how I want you to handle it". Don't dwell on the past, rather focus on the future.

11.) Don’t argue with an emotional person. When people get upset and angry they don’t respond to logic and reason so you shouldn’t try using them. If someone is really upset then be quiet and let them vent without responding to what they say and after a few minutes it should be out of their system and they should be able to listen and process what you say to them better. If someone is irate then simply walk away or tell them to come back when they’ve calmed down. Give people the opportunity to calm down and get themselves under control before seriously engaging them in conversation. Also, when they’re venting don’t take anything that they’re saying personally because, again, they aren’t being logical or rational and they will often say and do things they don’t mean if order to hurt you. Always remember, emotional people aren’t logical so let them calm down first and then reason with them.

Now we will go to two of the most effective techniques available for calming angry and potentially violent people down.

Technique #1: Repeat, Approve, Respond

"Repeat, approve, respond" is a simple and highly effective technique for taking the emotional energy out of a situation, so effective that it is used by everyone from psychiatrists to telemarketers and from used car salesmen to hostage negotiators. If you talk to a good salesman and really listen to what they're saying you might hear them use it.

The best thing that you can do in a heated argument, or any argument, is to remove the emotional energy. It is the emotional energy that causes people to disregard logic, reason, and common decency. It is that emotional energy which causes people to "see red" and do and say things they would never do otherwise, and there are few better techniques to that than this.

Step 1: Repeat The first thing you want to do is repeat back to them what they just said in a calm and non-judgmental manner. It doesn't have to be word-for-word but it should be the general message. If someone is telling you that you never listen to them you would simply start off by calmly listening to everything they have to say and then when they're finished you'd say, "I don't listen to you" or "So you feel that I don't listen to you".

By opening your response by repeating back to them what they just said it will put them at ease because 1.) they know that you are actually listening the them and 2.) you just said something that they like and that sounds familiar and intelligent to them, which of course it does because they just said it.

Step 2: Approve Now you have to say something that shows that you approve and/or understand the statement you just repeated. For example: "I don't listen to you...I can see how you feel that way", "So you feel that I don't listen to you...thank you for being honest", or "I'm not listening to might be right. Thank you for bringing it to my attention".

Even if you don't agree with them or they're not making any sense you want to say something that shows that you understand them and are compassionate to their argument. Nine times out of ten this will stop them dead in their tracks and they will just look at you shocked. Approving shows that you are open to their argument and let's the emotional energy out so they can respond with reason.

Approving is usually the hardest part of the process for most people. If you get stuck thinking of something to say, just say something that shows that you approve of the communication process as a whole. Examples are: “Thank you for bringing this to my attention”, “great, I love open communication”, “thank you for being honest with me”, “Its good you told me you feel that way”, “I like the fact that you’re being open and honest”, “I’m glad you told me that”, etc.

Step 3: Respond At this point you've demonstrated to them that you are listening to them and you've shown that you are willing to hear their argument so now it is time to respond. "I don't listen to you...I can see how you might feel that way. Maybe I do get to busy and..."

Respond back but make sure that you follow the eleven rules of de-escalation: 1.) see the two of you as a team working to solve a problem, 2.) respect personal space and give them 5-6 feet, 3.) make sure that you are not displaying aggressive body language, 4.) take time to think before you speak, 5.) be calm and talk in a calm and even tone, 6.) use deflecting statements to deal with insults, 7.) don't talk in absolutes or use the words "always" and "never", 8.) phrase everything as "I feel...", 9.) keep the conversation focused on the thing or behavior you have issue with instead of them directly, 10.) keep the conversation focused on correcting the issue in the future instead of dwelling on the unchangeable past, and 11.) don’t argue with an emotional person.

Another great thing about this technique is that it not only takes away their emotional energy but it also removes yours. You can't be yelling back, losing your cool, and saying things you'll regret later if your busy repeating, approving, and responding.

This is a technique that you can do over and over again. You go through the process once and then after you respond they say something else and if there is still some emotional energy left you just repeat the process until all the energy is gone. If the energy leaves and then comes back 5 minutes later you use the technique again.

A rule of thumb is that you don't do the technique more than 5 times in a row because it is at about that number that people start to notice that you're repeating what they've said back to them. So you might do it 4 times in a row and then take a break for a few minutes and then use it again.

You need to practice with this technique to make sure that you have the hang of it. The great thing about this is that you don't need an argument to use it. You can use it in any conversation to make yourself seem more intelligent and thoughtful (repeating back to people what they've just said usually has that effect). I recommend practicing it in every day conversations regularly so you can do it smoothly under duress.

Technique #2: Agreeing

Agreeing is another technique you can easily employ to remove yourself from an unwanted hostile situation. In this technique someone says something stupid to try to provoke you and instead of engaging in an argument you just agree with them. There are two versions of this technique, one for when you are in a situation where you can leave and one for when you're in a situation where you can't.

An example of the first version would be if you're walking down the street and someone yells something nasty at you and you have to respond (the BEST tactic is to ignore them totally because any response my escalate the situation). In this situation you can just say something short such as, "Yep, your right", "I sure am", or even just "Yes" to agree with whatever accusation they're making and then keep walking.

By agreeing you are not adding any emotional energy to the situation, but you might not be taking any out either. If you find yourself in a hostile situation and you want to leave quickly it is far more advantageous to just agree with whatever name you are being called then to argue, but in this technique if someone says something stupid you just agree and walk away.

The second version is used when you can't leave the situation but you don’t feel that you in real physical danger; perhaps you are speaking with a friend, co-worker, or a child. When they say something stupid to provoke you, you simply agree with it and then quickly change the subject.

For example, let's say that a co-worker is in a bad mood and they're telling you that you are horrible at you job. In this situation you could easily get into an argument that would get you nowhere or you could avoid the argument and get back to work just by quickly agreeing with them and then changing the subject. That may go something like this:


You: "Yup, I sure am. Does anyone know what time the meeting is today?"

If the argument was with your child it may go something like this:


You: "Oh yeah, I'm like a meaner version of Hitler. Have you seen the cat lately?"

By quickly agreeing and then changing the subject you can avoid a lot of arguments and save yourself the work of having to de-escalate them.

Technique #3: Acting As If You Feel Worse Than Them

This a technique is not for de-escalating an argument, it is for when you are being verbally assaulted, you can’t escape the situation, and you feel you may be in physical danger. This is designed for someone berating you with insults and trying to make you feel small, weak, and stupid.

This technique works because if someone is insulting and belittling you they are do it so that you feel bad, but if you show them that you feel even worse than they’re trying to make you feel they won’t have any place to go with their insults and will normally give up and walk away.

Let’s say that you get out of your car and someone runs up to you and starts screaming that you cut him off in traffic. It is clear that this could turn into a violent situation so you want to de-escalate it as quickly as possible.

You could throw your hands up in the air and say, “YOU’RE RIGHT! I’M SO STUPID! I MUST BE THE WORST DRIVER ON THE PLANET!” Then you might look at the ground (towards his feet so you can keep him in your peripheral vision) scrunch up your face, and start slapping yourself in the side of the head saying, “STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!”

The point is that you want to make a scene that shows that you feel worse about what happened then they want you to feel. On a scale of one to ten of how bad you could feel about yourself, if you think that they want to be at a ten then make a scene to show them a twelve, or a fifteen. If they’re looking for a ten and you show them a twelve they have nowhere to go and often just write you off as crazy and leave.

If you think the situation can’t be de-escalated and violence is imminent you should immediately go to the technique described next and get ready to start striking targets and causing injures.

De-Escalating Social Aggression

Let's say that someone that makes you feel uncomfortable has approached you and you want to make them back off and leave you alone. That's what we're dealing with in this section.

If someone comes up to you and starts to bother you and you want to make them back off you have three options: 1.) You can be passive and you probably will encourage the aggressor and the situation may escalate, 2.) you can be aggressive and the person will either leave or become aggressive themselves and then a physical confrontation is likely, or 3.) you can use de-escalation techniques to make them disengage and back off at about a 90-95% rate, even with violent criminals.

When They Approach You

When someone approaches you, you want to do two things:

1.) Check to see what their hands are doing. You want to see what their hands are doing because if they attack you it will be with their hands. If one of their hands is in a fist then they're probably planning on throwing a punch; if they're hands are in their pockets or behind their backs they could be hiding a weapon (be careful of anyone who only has one hand in their pocket because the only reason for that is to grab something). If someone is walking towards you and one of their arms is hanging naturally but the other is stiff and not moving then that is a sign that that hand contains a weapon (in the security field this is generally referred to as a "dead arm"). Also notice if they are continually tapping or rubbing an area of their body. If they're doing this usually it is because they have a weapon on them and they are making sure it is still there. Look at people's hands as see what they're doing, take care to notice if they move towards their body.

2.) Look around and check your surrounding area. Look around you and behind you to see who and what is there. Is there anyone else approaching you, from behind possibly? Is there an exit nearby you can run to? Often one criminal will approach you from the front and try to distract you while another attacks you from behind.

Initial Contact

When someone is planning on attacking you usually they will come up to you and try to start a conversation or ask you something. During this time, known as an "interview", they will try to distract you and feel you out while they slowly creep their way closer to attack. When this happens the first thing you want to do is to assertively establish a boundary around you and make eye contact with them. If someone that makes you feel uncomfortable is just walking by you, you should just make quick eye contact with them and get out of their way. However, if you feel that they might attack you (especially if you notice their reaching in their pockets as they near you or one arm is "dead") you should make brief eye contact with them and then put distance between the two of you, like abruptly crossing the road, while keeping an eye on them. Hopefully you have pepper spray or another weapon ready just in case something does happen.

If someone approaches you and you feel threatened you should make eye contact with them. There have been several studies done with repeat violent offenders in various prisons and even the most violent agreed that if their intended victim made eye contact with them it was usually enough to make them pick someone else. Criminals like attacking by surprise and usually just making eye contact is enough to make them feel that their element of surprise has been lost.

If they engage you verbally the first thing you should do is look them in the eye and speak in a calm but assertive voice, establish a boundary, and try to determine their intentions. One of the best questions you can ask is simply "What do you want?" because it cuts to the chase and makes them decide their intentions.

You want to establish a boundary about 5 or 6 feet away from you and make sure that they don't cross it. The more distance there is between the two of you the more reaction time you'll have if they do attack you. If they start to cross the boundary you should first assertively inform them that they need to back up. Most people, of good intentions, will feel foolish and apologize if you look them in the eye and assertively say, "Excuse me, you're getting too close and making me feel uncomfortable! I need you to back up!"

First, inform them of their error and make your feelings about it known because if they're not planning on doing something criminal and you bring their ill manners to their attention they'll usually back up and apologize. This also shows that you are in control of the situation and if they want an easy target they have to go look elsewhere. An example of how this may go is as follows:

They approach you and say, "Hey there, how are you doing?"

You look them in the eye and say in an assertive manner, "Excuse me, you're getting a little too close and I feel uncomfortable! I need you to back up!"

They reply, "Sorry, I just wanted to talk..."

"Well I don't! Please go away!"

When you're at this point you really need to stick to your guns and demand that they respect your boundary because this is where a criminal will try to put you at ease and con their way closer. Whatever they say just ignore it and continue to demand that they back up and give you your space. Don't let up!

If they're persistent you can also say to them assertively, "Give me 5 feet!" Saying this to a criminal generally brings pause and then they tend to obey because this command is a common one used by guards in almost every prison in America. If they are a criminal who has been in prison then saying this will usually give them pause because they'll wonder how you knew to say it to them.

If you're at this point and they still don't respect your boundary then it's time to become aggressive with them and use the "bad dog voice".

The "Bad Dog Voice"

The "bad dog voice" is probably one of the most useful tools at your disposal when dealing with unwanted people. What you do is to give them direct commands with the same tone and inflection as you would if you were scolding a dog who you found defecating on an expensive rug. Upon seeing the dog you'd shout, "NO! BAD DOG! KNOCK IT OFF!" at him and he would respond by flinching away from you. The dog most likely wouldn't understand your words but he definitely would understand your tone.

People respond to that voice just the same way as the dog. There is something about the tone that makes people stop in their tracks and pay attention. If you are trying to get someone to back off the "bad dog voice" has proven effective in stopping them about 90-95% of the time. The trick is to practice and make sure that you are speaking in the same tone as you would as if you were scolding a dog.

You want to use short and direct commands that tell the individual exactly what they need to do to comply with you. You might shout, "STOP! GET BACK! LEAVE NOW! YOU NEED TO LEAVE NOW! BACK AWAY! GO! NOW! BACK OFF!" You don't need to get fancy or be creative with this, you can just keep repeating "BACK AWAY NOW!" over and over until they comply.

If you aggressively shout these phrases while using the "bad dog voice" you will most likely make them actually jump back. In any case you will be making so much noise that they will be worried about someone hearing and if they are criminals they'll most likely leave to find another victim. Even if they are violent criminals about 90-95% of the time they'll start uttering profanities and turn around and leave.

Even if a criminal confronts you and pulls a knife you still might be able to make him back off and leave by using this technique.

If you do this technique and they don't leave then there is no doubt that plan on doing violence to you and you need to prepare to use either weapons or self-defense techniques.


You want to stand in a confident manner, however, appearing to be confident is not nearly as important as keeping your head up and frequently looking around to be aware of who and what is around you. A criminal will typically choose to victimize someone who is appearing to be confident over someone who has their head up and is frequently checking out their surroundings. A confident person may or may not resist but with a little skill the criminal can just take them by surprise, but a person who is aware of their surroundings may seem them coming and start running and few criminals want to do that much work or draw attention to themselves by giving chase.

When you begin this technique you want to have your feet about shoulder width apart, put one foot ahead of the other, raise your arms and hold your palms out. You want to make sure that you don't straighten your arms and lock your elbows because if they grab a hold of your arms and they're locked then with a simple tug they can pull your entire body around. However, if your elbows are bent slightly and relaxed and they grab your arms and tug your arms can move independently of your body and you can remain in control of your balance.

You want to be very aggressive and shout repeatedly, "BACK UP NOW!" while using the "bad dog voice" and continue until they leave or attack. Often when you begin the technique a criminal will first respond with surprise, then once the surprise wears off they will try to intimidate you to see if you'll back down but if you keep it up you'll soon realize that it won't work and they'll leave. The key is to aggressively continue until they turn and leave.

Since any normal person will turn and leave when confronted with this technique if they stay or proceed to come closer there is little doubt that they plan on attacking you. If they come forwards again you should respond with a preplanned physical response such as using pepper spray or another technique such as clawing their eyes or attacking their groin with an upward slap or hard kick with your shin.

Ideally you should have pepper spray on you and you should have it in your hands as soon as you enter a transitional area like stairwells, elevators, parking lots, alleys, hallways, etc. If you have pepper spray and you are confronted you should hold it against your body and have the other hand held out with your palm extended towards them while you use this technique. Then if they come towards you, you should spray them in the face and then run away.

Even with the best de-escalation skills you should have the necessary physical skills to defend yourself in case the individual attacks rather than leaves. It is imperative that you take a reputable self-defense class to learn effective techniques and then practice those techniques at home to prefect them. You should also learn to use pepper spray properly and make sure it is in your hands before you enter transition areas. Regardless of what weapon you have, if it is not in your hands when the altercation starts you should forget about using it for the time being.

Handling Intoxicated People

When confronted by an intoxicated person the first technique you want to use is simple redirection. When intoxicated the individual is unable to process information as effectively as they should and redirecting their attention off of you and onto something else has proven to be quite effective. To do this you simply ignore what they are saying and pick an object or activity for them to focus on and then simply suggest it to them.

To give you an example, let's say that you are in a public situation and an intoxicated person comes over to you and starts to bother you. You could look past their shoulder and then say, "Hey, that guy is waving at you!" When they turn and look or question you about it you could suggest that the person has just walked around the corner and that they should go and find out what they want because it looked important. Very seldom will they not take the bait and when they leave it will give you time to leave the area as well.