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Defusing conflict

Tension is in the air. A disagreement seems to be building into something more threatening. An awkward confrontation is expected that could involve hurtful words or physical violence. If you can, you would like to cool the tension and reduce the aggression.

What can you do? Working that out is not easy. Success is not guaranteed. But if you get it right, the rewards are great. Increase your chances with this defusing conflict briefing.

Curriculum links: Citizenship

Imagine these scenes

  • A ticket inspector enters a first-class train carriage to find a group of football fans. They have been drinking, are rather pleased with themselves and noisy. They don't have first-class tickets.
  • A man gets out of a car. He is red in the face, shouting, swearing and clearly angry about something
  • A youth worker sees a group of young people she knows in a state of agitation. When she looks again she realises that they are being taunted, and prevented from moving on, by a group of bigger teenagers from a different area.
  • A long-standing irritation about noise levels has risen to a point where a householder feels they really must speak their mind to a neighbour.

All are situations that could escalate into conflict. Or they could be "defused", and physical or verbal confrontation avoided. The principles and ideas outlined below should help to defuse this type of conflict, whether you are one of the parties involved or a bystander.

Can you help?

You have spotted that a potential conflict is brewing. That is good. But you also need to check yourself – to be sure that you are calm. If that is too much to ask, try to feel calm and confident so that you can appear in control and manage any potential anger triggers.

Check yourself for obvious physiological signs of high emotion. Is your heart beating faster, your breathing shallower, your head swirling, your body tense or your hands sweaty? If you have these sorts of indicators of stress, or if someone emotionally close to you is involved in the conflict, rushing in to help may not be a sound move. Try to calm down by breathing out, or simply taking a moment to focus.

Remember that it is not always easy to stay focused on defusing a situation, especially if comments appear personal and directed at you.

Is what you are aiming for realistic?

Are alcohol-fuelled football fans in the scenario above likely to realise their mistake and quietly move into a standard carriage, clearing up any litter and plumping the cushions as they go? Well, perhaps. The noisy neighbour might apologise profusely, transform their behaviour and never make another sound. Possibly. But it would be wise not to aim for either outcome. Failure would be far more likely than success. You need a more realistic goal - for a period of relative quiet from the neighbour at night time perhaps. The ticket inspector might be content if the group stay friendly, move out of the first-class carriage and don't cause too much annoyance to other passengers.

Deciding on a realistic goal may be straightforward. If you are returning a faulty product to a shop, then your desired outcome might be fairly clear - like money back or a new replacement. You can decide whether you will accept a lesser result, such as paid-for repair or a credit note. But in many cases, the outcome you want will not be so clear-cut and may require some agile thinking and careful consideration.

Sometimes the outcome may be a negative - that no one is injured, for example.

When considering your aim, check why you want it. Who benefits? Is it in everyone's interests? Do you feel instinctively that you want someone involved in the dispute to "win" and someone to "lose"? Can you see that that is unhelpful?

Try to settle on an outcome that is realistic and that gives something to all parties. It may be modest, but if it is in the right direction, that's fine.

What are the risks?

In a conflict there is an ever-present chance that you or someone else could be hurt, emotionally or physically, or that property could be damaged. Deciding to step in does not automatically mean that a conflict will be solved. Your intervention may not be effective. It may make things worse.

The first rule of thumb is that if there is a real threat to your safety you should leave the scene, staying alert to risks as you go. If you decide to stay, keep assessing the risks and be prepared to leave at any time. Some public-minded citizens who intervene to stop antisocial behaviour get stabbed or battered. That is a personal tragedy for them and their families.

Note that leaving the scene doesn't mean abandoning the situation. You may be able to call someone better able or equipped to help, for example, or prepare to be a witness.

Always be alert to the effect of drink and drugs. They can stimulate bizarre and irrational behaviour. They may also make people aggressively foolhardy, and physically stronger than you might expect.

People under emotional or psychological stress can also be difficult to predict and may not respond in the way you expect.

Be prepared for things to change quickly by staying alert and positioning yourself for a quick getaway.

What do you do first?

What you do and say first, and how you do and say it, will have tremendous impact on the situation. Looking at the first of the scenarios above, the ticket inspector could be friendly and ask about how the game went. Or they could be immediately confrontational, issuing warnings and threats to the group. The two approaches will have a different impact on the chances of the group leaving the carriage peaceably.

A well-chosen approach and opening line sets up the best chance of defusing the situation safely. Looked at the other way, if an intervention is going to escalate the problem and increase the threat levels, then the first few seconds is probably when it will happen.

There are no easy answers as to what to say for openers. General guidelines are:

  • be clear and don't mix up fact with opinion.
  • if you suggest something, say why. People respond better if they are told there is a reason for something. It doesn't even have to be very logical.
  • most importantly, always bear in mind the emotion and concerns of other people. It is vital to offer a face-saving way out. No one responds well to being cornered or made to feel embarrassed.

What happens next?

Defuse tension by listening – actively and with attention. Try to keep people talking. Avoid multiple, rhetorical or complicated questions. That can be seen as challenging and can heighten emotions rather than lowering them. Always try to show you are listening and that you are understanding and sympathetic to their point of view. These techniques are used by hostage negotiators, often successfully.

Your aim is to take the energy out of the situation - that lowers the general tension. You also want to earn the right to influence and persuade. The best way to do this is to gain trust by showing respect. Take time over this. People don't stay very angry for hours, provided that they are not provoked again. Once you have gained some trust, when you make a suggestion or indicate a possible way forward, you have a fair chance of success.

What will make things worse?

Telling an angry person to calm down is a bad idea. It shows that you have not understood and so winds people up. It introduces a new element to the conflict - based around you. Think about the way politicians use it. They don't want their opponents to calm down, they are trying to infuriate them more. That is not what you want.

Do not beg or plead for co-operation. Ultimately you will want people to act in a way that suits them, not just to do you a favour.

Do not be too calm. Responding in a laid-back way to someone who is very agitated shows a lack of concern. It indicates that you have not appreciated what they are feeling. So a logical response for them may be to become louder and angrier, to try to get the message through to you. Instead, try to match the person's energy, showing that you share their concern, even though you don't actually experience the same anger.

Avoid cleverclog responses that involve irony or sarcasm. Try not to sound patronising. Remember that people with heightened emotions are physiologically geared up for flight or fight - not for rational debate or for appreciating nuances of tone.

Very importantly, forget all ideas of judgment. Your role is not to act as judge and jury, rewarding the injured party and punishing the guilty. Keep an open mind, listen and try to understand other perspectives.

Teaching ideas

Look back at the list of situations. Select one or more and work out what could be done that would make things worse, and what might make things better. A good focus would be to ask students, in pairs or groups, to think of the most unhelpful opening line for each - and then think of a more helpful one:

What would you not say to:

  • football fans in a first-class train carriage.
  • an angry-looking motorist.
  • a group of teenagers surrounded by bigger and more threatening young people.
  • a noisy neighbour.

Discuss why the response is unhelpful and describe what is likely to happen next in each case. This could be explored through drama or role play.

Then think through what might be a better opening line. What is the difference between the two approaches? Try to identify elements brought out elsewhere in the briefing - such as sympathy, respect, clarity, non-judgment and face-saving.


This briefing is based on research and development work by Dfuse who have more activity ideas and teaching resources on their website.