How to De-escalate Conflict

Wendy Loewen

de-escalation, de-escalate violence, workplace violence, violence threat assessment

How does it feel when you are wrong? What about when you make a poor decision or forget an important detail? Have you ever made an assumption that incorrectly coloured how you saw a person? How did it feel to realize this?

I have been asking these questions of my friends, family, and coworkers, and their answers often include words like horrible, embarrassing, and humbling. The saddest stories involve conflict and the relational damage that results when one party, or both, act on misinformation.

Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I took a 90-minute drive to get to a dear friend’s wedding. We arrived early and ventured into a beautifully decorated church. We were greeted by the janitor, and told him that we were there for the wedding. A frown moved across his face as he informed us that the wedding had just finished. We raced to the reception across town just in time to sit down at our table and join the crowd in clapping as the bride and groom made their way to the head table.

In my mind, the wedding was at 3 PM. However, I checked the invitation later that evening and it clearly said “1 PM.” I had been operating under this misinformation and carefully planning for the wrong time for months. But being wrong didn’t feel horrible, humbling, or embarrassing. Over the weeks up to the wedding, being wrong felt exactly like being right. It felt right up until the janitor told us the wedding was over. Acting on misinformation resulted in me missing a friend’s wedding, but a lack of perspective, limited information, or wrong assumptions can sometimes have much more devastating results.

Conflict Can Cause us to Jump to Conclusions

The reality is that we are often wrong when we are in conflict – or we’re at least limited in the information on which our understanding is based. Despite our lack of information, we are quick to create a complete narrative to make sense of situations. The problem is, we frequently miss key information that could help us see and understand the situation more clearly. This can be detrimental as we often jump to a different conclusion than the other person about the same matter.

Chris Argyris, a professor at Harvard Business School, calls this jumping to conclusions based on untested beliefs the Ladder of Inference. We move from listening to a colleague say they would like more details in our report, to remembering the several negative comments they said that made us look poor in front of our peers. Then we tell ourselves that they see us as incompetent and are always looking out for themselves, which causes us to decide we do not trust them.

The reality is that we are often wrong when we are in conflict – or we’re at least limited in the information on which our understanding is based.

These leaps of abstraction that take us up the Ladder of Inference happen in a split second. In fact, they occur so quickly that we often do not realize that they are happening. We are convinced that our perceptions are right, when in reality they can easily be wrong. Our conclusions are affirmed by our feeling that we are right. In conflict, both parties tend to engage in these mental jumps, and this increases relational tension and limits communication.

Here are a few tips to help you avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference, open the lines of communication, and de-escalate conflict:

  • Recognize that we can’t live without making assumptions.It would be too tedious and time-consuming to test every single belief we have before making a decision. Some things we need to assume in order to function efficiently. For example, when I go to the doctor, I assume that the diploma on the wall is real. This kind of assumption is helpful. However, keep in mind that when the stakes are high, assumptions about other people’s intentions are rarely useful.
  • Take time to reflect on your own thinking.When you sense an internal reaction or a negative thought towards someone, pause and become mindful of your own emotions and the thought processes you are basing your conclusions on.
  • Make your thinking visible to others.Learn to gently test your assumptions by giving voice to them. “I may not have all the information, but it seems to me…” “Right now, I get the sense that…” “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it feels like…” Vocalize your own assumptions with those who may be able to broaden your perspective, and be open to correcting your inferences.
  • Ask about the reasoning of the other person.
    Actively inquire about the thought processes of the people around you. You can do this in two ways:

    • First, ask them directly about their thought process. “When you said ______, I was wondering what you meant…” “If I understand you correctly, do you mean…”
    • Second, consider what else might be guiding someone’s actions or comments. “I wonder why they would say/do that?” “I wonder what might explain their actions?”

Double-checking the details of an event as in the case of my missed wedding, or making sure we have gained as much perspective as possible on a situation is always helpful. The next time you are annoyed or bothered by someone’s actions, take a moment to pause and consider your assumptions, speak your perspective, and ask about the perspective of the other person. When you use the tips above you may not always agree with the other person, and they may not always agree with you, but you will gain a clearer understanding of the situation. Being able to act with more information is always helpful – and will keep you from missing any weddings!


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Author: Wendy Loewen
Managing Director, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The book is available on our website.

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