There has been a lot of news lately about law enforcement and their use of force. I am not so sure this is happening more than it used to but with the advent of cell phones the video of these instances heightens our awareness of it. In law enforcement there is a time when an attempt needs to be made to de-escalate a situation. Force is an option under the right circumstances but some situations can be defused by trying to de-escalate things rather than ramp up the tension. I do not envy anyone who has to make those decisions in difficult situations that have the potential to escalate into something where not everyone gets to go home alive.
There are similar situations in ministry where someone comes to a minister to either vent or even verbally attack the minister. In these situations it is important to try to de-escalate things by acting, speaking and posturing yourself in a way that is more likely to lessen the tension and disarm the other person’s attack without having to yell, fight or go down to their level. Here are a few things you can do to help bring the level of tension and anger down to a reasonable level where a productive conversation can happen:
- Resist the urge to fight back or get defensive. There may come a time when you are forced to defend yourself but I don’t like to start there. This is difficult because your body typically responds with shortness of breath, faster heartbeat, and heightened anxiety that makes it hard to remain calm or think rationally. This is why strong arm tactics work because they are an attempt to force you off balance and then not be able to think and speak from a healthy place.
- Listen. This is also hard as you hear things that are hard to hear and immediately begin formulating your defense. Once you mentally begin formulating your defense it is impossible to really hear what they are saying. We listen even if we feel like they aren’t.
- Praise what can be praised. This is hard because this is not most people’s first instinct. First instinct is to protect and invalidate all that is wrong with what they are saying. Defensiveness tends to escalate the tension rather than de-escalate it so don’t go there first. There may come a time for that but not early in the conversation. A few things that can typically be praised are things like someone’s zeal and passion/boldness or an appreciation that they came to tell you personally how they feel. This can bring it down a notch.
- Describe what you hear them say. This also allows them to hear how they sound and also to correct any misunderstandings you may have. You may say back to them what you heard them say. Maybe they will hear just how unkind they are being. For some people this will help them self-reflect a bit (unless they are still too angry to do that). If you say, “I can tell you feel very strongly about this.” it shows that you are trying to understand them. It is hard to attack someone you can tell is listening to understand you.
- Point out what they got right. We fear they will think they are “winning” but that is not the game you are playing. You are teaching them how to play a different game than the worldly game of winning arguments. So point out what they got right in their critique. Maybe you even tell them you do need to work on something they have pointed out as a genuine weakness of yours. Most people will not pile on attacks to someone who takes this posture. If they pile on after praising, describing and even confessing they are demonstrating the depth of their own sickness and immaturity.
- Ask them questions that will help expose their own issues. You don’t have to attack the holes that exist in what they are saying yet. This is like God in the garden asking man where he is and if he ate the fruit. Those were two questions God knew the answer to but God allowed Adam to answer for himself. This is allowing the other person the process and gift of discovery and self-awareness.
- Define the purpose of the conversation. This should have come earlier in the list but I think it has been illustrated well enough at this point to make the most sense to say it now. You have to define your purpose in these conversations before you get in the middle of them. The purpose is not to have a fight to see who wins. The purpose is to have a relationships that is mutually beneficial. That requires a give and a take. That means the other party must also consider their own issues rather than just pointing out yours. All of the things listed above are efforts to own your own stuff but also gradually and gently help them own theirs as well. That leads us to the final point.
- Defend yourself. If you continue to be attacked at this point there are a few options at your disposal. You can forgive, walk away and try to let it drop. You can defend yourself directly. This would involve helping them to understand that you have tried to be kind, gentle, loving and not defensive. You have tried to understand them because the love and respect that come with a healthy relationship require that. But there comes a point in time for them to stop doing things that are unhealthy and at this point if they are still coming after you they are in an unhealthy place. I don’t like this step but I would rather it be at the end of the discussion than at the beginning. If you do this first you might actually miss a chance for valuable feedback that might help you grow. People who think they are above criticism are unhealthy themselves. It is alright to tell people that what they are doing is not ok. It is alright to tell someone they are acting in an unChristlike manner. “A gentle words turns away wrath” (Prov 15:1) is a principle, not a promise. Paul and Jesus both show us there can come a time when a direct rebuke is necessary. Again, I just don’t think it is healthy to feel like that must be my first move.