Keeping Calm: How to De-escalate High Stress Situations

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Conflict and stress are unavoidable. They are facts of life as much as breathing oxygen and eating food for energy. Arming yourself with the knowledge and skills to navigate these challenging situations will spell the difference between running around like a headless chicken or coming out intact physically and emotionally. The earlier we can accept the inevitability of conflict, the better we can prepare when it happens.

There are many reasons why conflict arises, and usually, it is in relation to other people. Psychologists Art Bell and Brett Hart outlined the eight causes, focused on workplaces and businesses. But as we all know, workplace conflicts serve as a projection of all kinds of conflict. You’re competing for scarce resources and opportunities. Your beliefs and values don’t align. Miscommunication and misunderstanding happen due to cultural barriers or weaknesses in the process.

How then can one remain calm in front of angry customers, judgmental family members, and aggressive internet trolls? Is it possible to de-escalate high-stress situations with proper strategies and tools? What can you do to protect your physical and mental well-being, as well as those of others?

Here are some techniques for managing high-stress events and reducing their influence.

Assess the environment

The first step in de-escalating a conflict situation is being aware of what’s going on, which includes your disposition, the state of the aggravated person, and the potential threats if things go awry. Going in blind can do more harm than opting to disengage from the conflict.

Take stock of what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing at the moment. Are you experiencing strong emotions like anger and fear, or are you relatively calm and stable? Do you have enough headspace to deal with what’s happening rationally? If you find yourself quick to jump on the emotional bandwagon, then it might be better to avoid the conflict or ask for help if you can’t put a pause to the disagreement.

Try also to observe the person in distress and the surroundings. Is their body language showing signs of offense or defense? Do they feel threatened, afraid, or wronged? Are there items present that can be used as a weapon?

Listen and acknowledge

While it might be tempting to negate everything an irate person is saying, being defensive will only make matters worse. You are showing that you are not there to de-escalate but to fight. Instead, listen to what the person is saying and allow them to vent.

There is some truth to the reason they got riled up, and acknowledging what they’re feeling can diffuse their anger. You are confirming the legitimacy of their emotions and not the behavior. The problem that they’re bringing up might even be a cause of attention that needs investigation. Their venting acts like police lights and sirens, a warning signal to be heeded before things get worse.

Use suggestions instead of commands

talking with each other

Highly agitated individuals do not respond well to authoritative statements. They will interpret your words as a sign of attack and retaliate back with equal force. Using suggestions, though, are a different ball game. It makes the person come off as caring and compassionate, and the receiving party will most likely act them out even without their knowledge.

A “Question Statement” is effective as it takes the emphasis off from what you’re asking the person to do. For example, saying, “Would you mind sitting down and catch your breath so I can listen better?” sounds less forceful than “Sit down and get a hold of yourself!”

Anticipating and preparing for potential conflict is key to knowing how to get through an intense scenario. You can follow de-escalation techniques such as situational assessment, active listening, and using suggestions instead of authoritative sentences.

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