By Charles H. Elliott, Laura L. Smith, W. Doyle Gentry

Here are ten techniques for cooling down situations that threaten to ignite when you don’t want them to. In all but the rarest of cases, you’ll feel better and come up with more effective solutions when you contain conflict rather than give anger a free rein.

When faced with an angry person, you want to do everything you can to avoid escalation. Heated arguments and even violence can erupt when escalation climbs. And escalation can happen really fast if you’re not careful.

Listening deeply

When people attack, your best defusing strategy is to listen. Really listen. Give the angry person some time to completely express his frustration. The ideal way to show that you’re listening is to paraphrase what’s been said.

Tell the person how you heard what he said. If he agrees you got it right, you can move on. If not, ask him to restate what was said so you can better understand his intent.

Controlling pace, space, and breath

Arguing in parking lots and other open spaces merely increases the chances of escalation. You can bring those risks down by moving to another, more contained space, such as a nearby coffee shop or the inside of a store. Locations such as these usually inhibit people from getting physical or verbally abusive.

Here are a few more ideas for containing a potentially explosive interaction:

  • Suggest that the two of you sit down in chairs.

  • Notice where the exit doors are located just in case.

  • Attempt to maintain a distance of about two arms’ length away from your adversary.

  • Control the speed of your speech.

Asking for clarification

Many arguments occur when two people simply fail to understand what each other is trying to say. Rather than assume you know what the argument is about, why not be sure by asking for clarification? You can restate what you think is going on, but say that you want to be sure that you have it right. Ask about or query the other person regarding any part of your communication (or the other person’s) that you think may remain unclear.

Ask for more information. That’s right; ask for more about what’s upsetting the person. Rather than get defensive, query about additional concerns by asking questions.

Don’t worry; you’ll have your chance to present your side after things calm down. When you rush into presenting your case, you increase the likelihood of escalation. Take your time.

Sometimes angry people switch gears rapidly from ranting and yelling to stony silence. If that happens, don’t insist on more information right then. Suggest another time to talk.

Speaking softly

Have you ever listened to the voice volumes of people while they’re arguing? You probably can’t think of many times when arguments proceeded at a soft volume. A soft, patient voice tone and volume keeps emotions in check. It’s basically as simple as that — pay close attention to your voice volume when an argument threatens to break out.

If someone you’re speaking with uses a high volume, it’s okay to say, “You know, it really helps me understand you better if you speak a little more softly. Would that be all right with you?”

Connecting

When you feel disconnected from people, it’s far easier to feel angry with them. On the other hand, even a small bit of connection can dampen hostile feelings. You can start by asking angry people what their names are. Then use the names a number of times during your encounters.

Another way of connecting is to offer something edible (a muffin, a mint, whatever) or something to drink like tea or coffee or even water. When you offer people something, they typically feel a desire to reciprocate in some way; at the very least, they’ll be less likely to explode. Furthermore, it’s kind of hard to yell if you have something in your mouth!

Dropping defensiveness: verbally and nonverbally

Defensiveness communicates an intense need to guard against criticism or other hostilities — whether real or imagined. Defensiveness increases, rather than decreases, the chances that someone may attack you verbally or physically. That’s because defensiveness is a weak response, whereas non-defensiveness communicates strength and confidence.

Facial expressions, body language, posture, and what you say all can increase or decrease defensiveness.

Finding agreement where you can

No matter how obnoxious or outrageous a person’s viewpoint may be, you can almost always find a sliver of agreement. Express partial agreement with phrases such as the following:

  • “I can see how you might look at it that way.”

  • “Sometimes that’s probably true” (even if you don’t think it is at the moment).

  • “You may have a point” (even if you doubt it, it’s always possible).

Expressing understanding

When dealing with an angry person, show that you understand by empathizing with the other person. Be careful to avoid saying you know exactly what the other person is feeling. Obviously, you don’t for sure. You can empathetically toss out a possibility but allow the person to disagree.

Developing distractions

Distraction involves abruptly changing the subject or focus of attention onto something else that’s unrelated to the conflict at hand.

Most disagreements don’t call for distraction. For example, if someone argues about getting short-changed, you wouldn’t want to change the subject.

Considering a timeout

Sometimes a resolution will elude you. The argument goes round and round and fails to progress. You see no solution in sight. When that happens, it’s time to stop.

Don’t get caught up in feeling you must come to a resolution immediately. If things aren’t getting anywhere or if you feel unsafe, it’s best to terminate the conversation and get out. Not all situations are resolvable. Do try again if you feel there’s a reasonable chance of success but not if it looks impossible.

You can use the excuse of needing to use the restroom to slow things down or even escape a difficult or dangerous situation. Most people can’t get themselves to refuse a request to use the restroom. Just declare that you’re going there. If need be, call for help.