Conflict communication: resolving confrontations the ‘easy’ way

String Can telephone communication deviceThe key objective in conflict situations is personal safety whilst ensuring harm minimisation. It is vital to employ strategies to defuse conflict before it reaches the level of physical confrontation.

To negotiate conflict situations effectively, use the following factors as a guide:

  • Maintain control and remain focused on the objective (personal/public safety)
  • Stay calm under pressure and be patient. Be aware of emotional triggers
  • Demonstrate active listening and avoid arguing with the subject(s)
  • Be objective and remain neutral
  • Be assertive and offer options, not ultimatums
  • Stimulate empathy so they see you as a person, not an object
  • Adopt an assertive, not confrontational, approach.

Resolving conflict can be stressful, so keep the following points in mind to stay calm under pressure:

  • Positive self talk. Avoid inappropriate speculation but back your judgment
  • Plan carefully and focus your mind
  • Avoid creating a sense of urgency – be assertive, not aggressive.

The ability to ‘step back’ both physically and emotionally from an escalating conflict is an extremely valuable skill. Physically withdrawing, taking a step away or retreating tactically can provide space, time and an opportunity to reassess. It also sends a conciliatory, non-threatening message to the other party. ‘Stepping back’ mentally is a process of reviewing, assessing and rethinking your strategy in a conflict situation.

A critical skill in developing effective conflict-management strategies is the ability to assess a wide range of factors, including the subject(s), the situation and context, your own responses, the potential for escalation, risk factors and environmental issues. Your assessment and strategic planning drive your choice of conflict-management options.

It is important that your assessment is as thorough as possible. It is important to acknowledge that said assessment must sometimes be carried out in difficult situations, or even while trying to defuse a confrontation. Focusing on assessment, however, helps to maintain a resolution-based approach and an awareness of any potential escalation features.

One aspect of situational assessment that many officers overlook is assessing the ‘self’. That is, assessing for issues of ego-involvement, self-control, emotional response and your contribution to escalation.

Interpersonal Communication

Interpersonal communication is a vital asset in dealing with people in all situations. With the proper use of assertive communication and by taking a proactive approach to a situation, you can usually reach a safe resolution. To communicate effectively it is important to understand the factors that affect interpersonal communication and seek to diminish their impact on the conflict situation.

Interpersonal (face-to-face) communication comprises the following components:

  • The verbal aspect (language), has the least impact in communication but tends to be the aspect most people focus on. Obviously, your choice of words should be considered carefully at all times, as having just a single word misinterpreted can lead to conflict
  • The tone aspect (how the words are said) includes rate of speech, volume, pitch and inflection. This aspect is important, as any particular phrase can have a different meaning depending on how it is spoken and, therefore, how it is perceived. For example, loud volume, a fast rate and high pitch indicate anxiety and stress. Low volume, a slower rate and low pitch indicate calmness and assertiveness
  • The non-verbal aspect (body language) makes up the bulk of all interpersonal communication, so it is important to observe others and read their body language in relation to what they are saying (verbal) and how they are saying it (tone). People can lie with their words or tone of voice but it is difficult to lie with body language, as the body gives a true expression of what a person is feeling. Officers should always ensure consistency in their verbal and non-verbal message.

Communication displays professionalism. You should ensure your language is clear, concise and appropriate to the situation. It is important to ensure consistency of verbal and non-verbal communication or else conflict may occur through misinterpretation. Communication should be conducted in a courteous manner that reflects sensitivity to individual social and cultural differences.

Use peoples’ names and display empathy. Use terms such as “us” and “we” to unite and show involvement in the situation, rather than “I” or “you”, which divide. Show respect for others’ positions. Sell the benefits of taking a particular course of action, rather than consequences of choosing another.

The proper use of eye contact is extremely important and should be utilised at all times. The use of the wrong type of eye contact may be deemed inappropriate and cause conflict by sending the wrong message to the receiver. Strong, assertive eye contact is recommended.

People have a personal space that they regard as their own. This space varies with culture and geography. It is important to be aware of these different zones so that we do not inadvertently create conflict during dealings with people. It is important to respect people’s personal space whilst maintaining awareness of people entering your own personal space.

Gathering information during communication involves asking questions and listening to the answers. In addition to providing information, questions also serve to engage the brain, which can assist in reducing resistive options in potentially confrontational situations. It is important to demonstrate active listening, which involves cooperation with the speaker, not competition. If you ask questions, give them an opportunity to answer. You can summarise the information back to ensure you actually understand their message. Never assume you know what they mean. Use listening noises (“Uh huh”, “Mmmm”, “Yes, I understand”) and gestures to show people you are hearing them.

Remain aware of barriers to communication so you can eliminate or control them, ensuring open and continuous dialogue. Being aware of these common barriers and avoiding them in your communication means there is more likelihood of your message being heard by the other person and of you understanding their point of view. To communicate effectively with people it is important to understand the factors that affect communication and to diminish their negative effect.

Negative language reflects the speaker’s mindset and affects the conduct of a situation. It is common for people to view the world as dichotomous (having only two possible choices – either positive or negative), which leads to judgements and a closed mind. When resolving conflict keep an open mind to all possibilities and opportunities and do not ‘judge’ others. Just as you don’t like being judged by others, it is important to accept each person and situation on its own merits. Previous history can be useful but don’t let it cloud your assessment and handling of the current situation.

De-escalation And Compliance

Your communication varies depending on what stage of conflict you are dealing with and your objective. You should aim to defuse potentially violent situations without resorting to physical control options, so your initial strategy will revolve around using language that de-escalates the intensity of the situation. If this does not work, then communication that asserts proactive control will be required.

De-escalation phrases are used to defuse potentially violent situations and defer the need for physical force by offering verbal alternatives to the subject’s current intentions or outlining the consequences of their course of action. Remain calm, assertive and objective. Using questions helps engage a person’s brain, distracting them from other strategies. Even if they do not wish to answer or engage in a question-and-answer conversation, their brain will consider the question. Your posture should be relaxed and balanced, portraying to the subject your desire to resolve the situation peacefully.

Examples of de-escalation phrases include:

  • “We have a need to change this situation. How can I help?”
  • “Help me understand your position so we can resolve this safely.”

Once you switch from negotiation to assertive action, your communication changes to compliance commands, in which you are instructing the subject what to do.

Compliance commands are used to effect assertive control with or without physical force. Your voice should portray a strong, commanding presence. ‘Commands’ does not mean that you are screaming at the subject. It means that you are taking assertive control. Your posture should be alert and ready, portraying your intent to take control of the situation.

Examples of compliance commands include:

  • “Stop! Stay back!”
  • “Drop the weapon!”
  • “Get on the ground!”

Remember to continue communication at all times during an incident. At different phases of incidents your communication will change as follows:

  • Before – negotiation for a non-violent solution
  • During – compliance commands to take control
  • After – reassurance for calming, pacifying and explaining.

Effective verbalisation is important because it demonstrates a reasonableness to resolve the situation without physical force, it directs the subject to what officers require of them and it creates witnesses from bystanders. It is important to be seen to do the right thing and to be heard to say the right thing. This is vital for witness statements and possible court proceedings.

Interpersonal communication is a vital asset in an officers ‘confrontational toolbox.’ It should be used prior to and in conjunction with  any other control option used during a confrontation, and as such is an aspect that all public safety personnel should be well conversant with. Correct communication should be trained just like other options, as this aspect more than any other often determines the eventual outcome of a confrontation, as well as having a primary impact on how officers are perceived by the public in terms of professional conduct and demeanour.

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Richard Kay
Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.