Defusing a volatile situation

We can't control how others feel or act but we do have the power to defuse volatile situations by applying the same de-escalation techniques used by professional crisis intervention teams.

Conflict can strike at any time. Anyone can learn the basics of defusing high conflict situations but the better you know the person, the easier it will be to figure out how to calm them down. Every person is unique and may respond differently, so you need to be flexible.

When dealing with conflict, your fight-flight-freeze response is activated. This part of your brain can't distinguish between a co-worker yelling at you or a snake trying to bite your ankle, so you need to exercise self control to stay calm. It's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, so take slow, deep breaths, and focus.

Don’t reflect anger with anger. Speak in a low, calm, even tone. It’s challenging to stay upset with someone who doesn't fire up in return. Show respect and treat the other person with dignity. Avoid negative, non-verbal cues such as rolling your eyes or scoffing. It isn’t easy remaining calm in the face of someone else’s rage, but try to be humble and confident. Think before speaking. When you set aside your own ego, you reduce the likelihood of exacerbating their anger.

Ordering somebody to calm down may provoke them. Instead, allow them to vent their frustrations. Avoid smiling or using humor, as it may backfire. Saying “Sorry about that,” or “I’ll try to fix this,” can go a long way. Offer your support and if you are unable to defuse the conflict, consider involving someone who can.


Everyone wants to be heard and validated, so it’s respectful to really take in what the other person is saying. What is it they hope to gain? Make every effort to empathise with their point of view. Showing that you understand what they’re going through is one way of resolving a volatile situation.

Setting personal boundaries is a healthy response. You have the right to say, “Please don’t swear at me.” Trust your instincts. If things go downhill, do what you need to do to stay safe. Avoid leaving yourself open to facing danger alone and allow extra space between you and an antagonistic person.

Conflict can seem stressful. Debrief afterwards with someone you trust and disperse adrenaline by going for a run or pounding a punching bag. Give yourself credit for keeping your composure and use confrontation as a learning experience. Take the time to identify any mistakes so that you become more prepared to manage future conflict.

Grant J Everett, Panorama magazine

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