Why do so many interactions these days become heated? Are people just meaner than they used to be? Have we lost our ability to be tolerant of one another? And, if so, what can we do about it?

In today’s society, it seems we are not only entitled to our opinion, but everyone else is entitled to our opinion as well. So, we blast our opinion on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. And we are met with electronic kudos and applause from our friends and supporters. This feels good, right? No, this feels awesome. We are validated, and we begin searching for more and more validation of our thoughts to feed that awesome feeling. When there is a differing opinion, we may feel it is okay to ridicule, chastise, and even denigrate that differing opinion on social media. It’s relatively safe, and we know we have friends watching who will support our point-of-view.

So then we want to apply that same online behavior to in-person behavior. We have an opinion, and we believe others have the obligation to hear our opinion. We feel emboldened to speak our mind. We feel empowered to have an outburst and to use rude language or gestures when doing so, all in order to get our point across that we are unhappy with an issue. We are unhappy with how we are being treated and, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the situation, we feel entitled to show our unhappiness to others in a forceful way.

I saw it last week at a fast food restaurant when the customer behind me was pacing back and forth, gesturing wildly, using profanity, and screaming about how long it takes to make tacos. It WAS an extraordinarily long wait. But, that customer’s behavior didn’t make the situation better. It’s only affect was to make other customers nervous. It certainly didn’t get him tacos any faster, since the folks witnessing his behavior were not responsible for the delay.

I saw another example a few days ago when a homeowner filed a negative review of our law firm on line because a judge ruled against them in court. The judge doesn’t work for our law firm! But, we (and everyone else on social media, apparently) were obliged to hear their complaint with the judge. It’s only affect was to make me wonder what the homeowner thought we could do about the situation. Their review of our law firm certainly wasn’t going to change the judge’s ruling in their case.

These types of emotional outbursts are embarrassing and a waste of time. They are overly-dramatic and disruptive to our environment. These are great reasons to try to de-escalate a confrontation when possible. But perhaps the most important reason to de-escalate a confrontation is to keep the conversation moving towards resolution. A conversation that continues to escalate in tone and in language derails the process of resolving the issue at hand.

In order to de-escalate a conversation, it may be helpful to understand why the escalation is occurring in the first place. Factors might be:

  1. Disrespectful language is being used;
  2. A disrespectful attitude is being demonstrated;
  3. One party or another doesn’t feel heard;
  4. Losing the argument will result in a loss of face or reputation with others;
  5. At least one person involved doesn’t fully understand the situation; or
  6. Someone feels powerless because they don’t know what steps to take next.

If you can identify at least one factor which has led to the escalation, you are on your way to de-escalating the situation. Here’s how:

  1. Disrespectful language is being used;
    It must be stopped, immediately, and with no exceptions. Sample language might be, “I am speaking to you without profanity, and you need to speak to me the same way.” If profanity or aggressive responses continue, terminate the conversation and schedule a time to reconvene the conversation.
  2. A disrespectful attitude is being demonstrated;
    Control your tone and your body language. Speak softly and slowly and provide facts only pertinent to the situation. Make yourself non-threatening to the other person. Articulate your respect for the other, their position, and the situation, and command the same respect in return for you and for your company. Sample language might be, “I understand the seriousness of this issue. House painting can be very expensive. I respect that. But, the new color of your house is not on the list approved by the community. This problem is unrelated to your neighbor being board president and how he may feel about you as a neighbor. I would to help you, and our management company wants to help you. Would you like me to send you a list of the approved colors so you can rectify the house painting issue?”
  3. One party or another doesn’t feel heard;
    Listen carefully and acknowledge the severity of the situation for the other person and then ask to be heard in return afterwards. It’s difficult to keep yelling or cursing at someone who is obviously listening. Sample language might be, “I know this is very upsetting to you and your family. I’m listening.” Followed later by, “I have heard what you wanted to tell me. And I have some additional information for you. And then, I will be happy to answer any questions you might have after I’m done.”
  4. Losing the argument will result in a loss of face or reputation with others;
    Engage fully in understanding the other party’s perspective, needs, and interests, especially when losing the argument might impact others not currently present. Sample language might be, “I understand you’re frustrated. Me, too. I promised my husband I would be home with tacos 20 minutes ago. Are you running late for something? I would be happy to let you go ahead of me if it would help you.“
  5. At least one person involved doesn’t fully understand the situation;
    A lack of information can make someone feel powerless. And powerless feelings can manifest themselves into overly aggressive responses. Conversation will then quickly escalate into confrontation. Sample language might be, “I want to make sure you understand that paying this month’s assessment doesn’t mean you are now current. Our records indicate your assessments are six months’ past due. So, making this payment is great. And, once we post this payment, our records will show your assessments are five months’ past due. Would you like to make an additional payment in order to bring your account fully up to date?”
  6. Someone feels powerless because they don’t know what steps to take next.
    Empower the other party by focusing on the future. Give specific actionable steps they should take and articulate specific actionable steps you or your company will take. Specify a deadline for the other party and yourself. And admit you or your company’s limitations to resolving the situation to their 100% satisfaction. Sample language might be, “I know this is stressful for you, but I do not personally have the authority to allow you to raise chickens within the community. However, if you could provide me with an email or a letter within the next few days detailing the purpose of the chickens and explaining why you believe you are within your rights as a homeowner to raise them within the community, I promise to research the issue and take the problem to the Board in time for their next meeting. But, I need the details from you in writing first so I can pursue resolving the situation with your board members.”

If you feel unsafe, you should stop engaging with the other party immediately and protect yourself by removing yourself from the threatening environment right away.

But, if you feel safe enough to continue interacting with this person, taking these steps can de-escalate a confrontation. To recap:

  1. Put a stop to disrespectful language. No exceptions.
  2. Demonstrate respect for the other by stating same. Control your body language and your tone, speak softly and slowly, and provide pertinent facts.
  3. Listen carefully, acknowledging the severity of the situation for the other person, and then ask to be heard in return afterwards.
  4. Understand someone might lose face if they lose this confrontation. Engage fully in understanding the other’s perspective, needs, and interests, and understand this person might have to explain it later to someone else involved.
  5. A lack of information leads to feeling powerless. And feeling powerless may be what is leading to overly-aggressive responses. Provide missing information.
  6. Empower the other person by providing them with specific actionable steps to take. Give them a deadline and articulate what steps you will be taking and by when. Now you both have a plan. And no one should feel powerless.

Are people just meaner than they used to be? Maybe. So, do something about it by putting these guidelines into action. Have we lost our ability to be tolerant of one another? No. And, by taking proactive steps to de-escalate a confrontation, you will be showing tolerance of the other person involved. And, more importantly, you will be facilitating the conversation towards resolution, which is what every involved party wants.