Have a look at these three response options:

  • Response one
  • Response two
  • Response three

Get away as quickly and as safely as possible – manage the risk

If at any point you feel that you are at risk of violence or harm, your priority is to get to safety – or reduce the risk. If you need to defend yourself to get away safely, or to prevent someone else from getting hurt, you can do so.

Under Common Law you can defend yourself, another person or your property from an attacker if you honestly and genuinely believe that the danger is happening NOW, that what you do is reasonable and necessary. You may have to explain what you did and why to others. You do not have to wait for someone to attack you – you can use force to prevent the attack from happening.

Everyone perceives risk differently based on their confidence, experience and abilities, and every situation is unique, but each time you encounter conflict, you can use the following to help you assess the risk and then choose your response.

Your options are…

  • Avoid the risk: Remove yourself from the situation – lock the door, take a different route, or run away.
  • Reduce the risk: Distance yourself from the risk – place a barrier between yourself and the risk, use de-escalation skills such as communication – keep them talking and manage your own attitude.
  • Share the risk: Get support from others – neighbours, colleagues, onlookers.
  • Accept the risk: There will be times when you feel the only option is to accept the risk of the situation. Think about what is happening. Do you have the tools and abilities to safely deal with the situation? Continue to assess the situation and keep looking for ways to avoid, reduce or share the risk.

Once you’ve assessed the risk, it may be necessary to change the outcome you want, or to re-think your initial response. You may need to go through the process of choosing an outcome and a response and assessing the risks several times before you settle on an approach you feel comfortable taking. Keep asking yourself what it is you want to achieve and remember – if the response feels too risky – choose another approach. You should always consider doing something, rather than nothing at all, to help improve a situation, no matter how small.

Here’s an example – when witnessing an elderly lady being mugged, a desirable outcome might be to stop the attack. To achieve this, some people may choose to ‘accept the risk’ and use direct force to defend her.

Others might reduce the risk by shouting at the attacker from behind a parked car, giving themselves time to escape should the focus of the attack move to them. This distraction might be enough to stop the attack altogether. Some may want to ‘share the risk’ by rallying a group of onlookers to approach the mugger, hoping that the show of force will be enough to encourage him to run off.
Many might avoid the risk completely and decide that they are not able to prevent the attack, but still want the attacker to be caught. They might call 999 instead, or film the assault on their phone.

Your body language is important – where you stand and how you position yourself can help you to stay safe. If you think confrontation is a possibility, follow these steps…

  • Position yourself in a safe place away from heights, staircases, escalators, windows, machinery, traffic, and close to an escape route (i.e. place yourself close to the door).
  • Keep your hands open and in view to show you have no weapons and that you are not considering attacking them with your hands. Keep your arms by your side and avoid sudden movements. Remember ‘POP – People, Objects, Place’.
  • Avoid YOUR actions and body language being interpreted as aggression? Look relaxed and friendly – drop your shoulders and flex your knees. Smile (if appropriate), but stay alert. Keep eye contact as normal as possible – do not stare, as this could be seen as confrontational.
  • If you believe the other person is a going to harm you – or the conversation you are having has the potential to escalate – then try to place a barrier between you and the other person, by standing behind a table or a garden fence. The purpose of the barrier is to provide you with a little extra time to escape, should the situation become violent.  If you can’t find a barrier, then make sure that you are standing about two metres (6-8ft) away from the other person, so they cannot hit you without moving forwards first. Never turn your back away from the other person.
  • In any aggressive encounter, your body language is just as important as what you say. While backing away, raise your open hands. This is a universally accepted sign for ‘stop’, ‘stay back’, or ‘don’t come any closer’. This can be very useful in a high anxiety situation. Your strongest foot should be furthest back. While standing in this position, you will be stable, and able to withstand pushes from the front or the side without losing your balance. To move, avoid crossing your feet, and simply step forward with the foot that is nearest to the direction you need to move in. 

Using communication to defuse or resolve the situation

Once you have assessed the situation and decided that the risk, anxiety and complexity are manageable enough to defuse yourself, i.e. there is no need at this point to call the police, the local Council or landlord then, this section will provide you with the knowledge to:

  • Reduce anxiety and anger
  • Understand the complexity of a situation
  • Get what you want from a situation

And these can all be achieved by adopting a series of simple yet safe communication skills – start a conversation, continue the conversation, and finally, reach your end goal.

Start the conversation

The purpose of your opening conversation will be to: reduce anger and anxiety; build a relationship; and to determine the best way of getting what you want, safely. The first conversation is the most critical part of defusing conflict – the wrong opening line could escalate the situation – the right opening line may be enough to defuse it completely.
Communicate in a way that the other person can understand. Be clear, think about the tone of your voice and choose your words carefully. You should have already avoided the spontaneous reaction and be in a defusing frame of mind.

Position yourself to stay safe

Refer to the practical tips as mentioned in Response 1 on how to position yourself and display non-aggressive body language. This is really important.

How to get your point across

These tips are useful when having difficult conversations. Use them to help you to organise your thoughts when a situation has made you angry.

  • Facts – present the facts and only the facts. Don’t include judgements or assumptions.
  • Opinions – give your thoughts on what was happening. Be clear that these are opinions and that they are yours (not someone else’s).
  • Make expectations clear – state what you would like the other person to do. Be specific and say what you mean.
  • Provide a reason – state the importance of the situation to you. People are unlikely to stop doing something they enjoy just because you are asking them to. They are more likely to cooperate if you give a reason for asking them to do something. Providing your ‘because’ prevents the other person from asking ‘why?’ If you can’t give a good reason, why you are making that request? Providing a good reason helps people to say ‘yes’ to you.

Here’s an example…
Fact: Your car is parked in front of my driveway and I am unable to get my car out.
Opinion: I do find it frustrating that I have to ask people to move, just so that I can drive in and out of my property.
Expectation: Would you be able to move your car and find another place to park it?
Reason: I come and go at all sorts of times and need access to my property, I don’t want to have to keep asking you to move.

If you are choosing to write a note or message, ensure you read it through first and that it can’t be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment.

Separate the person from their behaviour

Separating the problem from the person allows you to raise an issue without appearing to criticise the person’s actions, or be threatening. For example, instead of saying ‘you’re annoying me!’ say ‘I find it annoying when people do that’. Another example is to change ‘you are aggressive’ to ‘I don’t know if you realise, but you are coming across to me as aggressive’.

Don’t make the situation about you (or them)

To reduce the appearance of ‘me versus you’ in a confrontation, you can explain that the conflict is affecting others – e.g. ‘The argument that you two are having is starting to frighten the other people on this bus,’ or  ‘If the Council has to come along and pick up more litter then our Council Tax will go up and I’m pretty sure nobody wants that’, or ‘I don’t know if you realised, but your dog can be heard by the neighbours at the end of the road’.

Ask an open question

Once you’ve approached the situation and started the conversation, you can follow up by asking the person an open-ended question to keep the conversation going. Take care not to appear judgemental (e.g. ‘Can you think of a better way to do that?’) or aggressive (‘What do you want me to do about it?’). Once you’ve got them talking, keep them talking. On a very basic level – if they are talking, then they are not hitting you. If you show an interest in what they are saying, they should begin to trust you and their anxiety will reduce.

But – avoid asking too many questions

Open questions can be helpful to keep a conversation going, but try not to ask too many. Instead use the skills mentioned below.  Too many questions guide the talker in the listener’s direction – rather than allowing the speaker to say what they are thinking or feeling. For example, if someone is describing the emotions of having to repeatedly call their landlord to fix a problem and uses words such as upset, outraged, frustrated and ‘breaking point’, you are likely to stop them from talking if a you ask a question about detail such as ‘how many times have you called?’. The practical question shows that you were not ‘in tune’ with the high levels of emotion in what they were saying.

Encourage them to keep talking

Conversations take turns. I have a turn – you have a turn. You can take your turn by nodding your head in agreement, by smiling, with hand gestures, grunts and groans – ‘Right, okay, uh-huh, tell me more…’ etc. These are sometimes called ‘minimal encouragers’ – giving minimal encouragement to take your turn quickly and keep them talking.

By keeping them talking, you will also collect information about the situation from their perspective – which you can use later to get a better outcome.

Echo their language

To echo someone, repeat their last word(s), for example – ‘I’m just feeling a bit frustrated’, or ‘I get really wound up when people stare.’ The word(s) in the sentence that give it energy can also be echoed – e.g. ‘I am so annoyed about what they said’, or ‘I am feeling really positive about that.’ By repeating these words, you are showing the other person what they have just said. This will encourage them to check them to think about what they are saying. They might confirm that is what they meant or chance the word to better reflect how they feel.

Paraphrase

A paraphrase is a summary of what the other person has said. By paraphrasing, you are checking your understanding of the message and in doing so, showing the other person that you are trying to understand their point of view. Use phrases such as: ‘If I’ve understood you correctly, then…’ and ‘What I think I’ve heard you say is…’ then using your own words say back to the other person your understanding of what they have said.

Say what you see

This is to ensure that you understand what the other person is saying – not just their words, but also their tone, intonation and body language. Reflect back your impression of what they are saying, the emotions they are displaying and highlight any incongruence between the words and body language. Use phrases such as: ‘It appears to me that...’ and ‘It sounds to me, like…’. For example, if someone is saying they are fine, but you believe their body language is saying they are not, then perhaps say: ‘It seems to me you aren’t entirely happy with this?’. Owning the statement yourself is less threatening than making a statement (i.e. not ‘You are feeling…’) and allows the other person to disagree with your summary. If you get it wrong, they will tell you.

Reaching an end point

Saving face

You should never intentionally embarrass someone you are in conflict with, as this may appear threatening and escalate the situation. For some people, backing down (i.e. losing the argument, or being told what to do) will cause great embarrassment. We call this losing face. They may know that they are in the wrong, but stubbornly refuse to cooperate with even your most reasonable request so as not to damage their reputation in front of others. Some people will risk violence and severe injury before doing something which will result in them losing face in front of their friends or family.

However, there IS a way around this…

  • Allow the other person to make small compromises gracefully without having to admit that they are wrong or are backing down.
  • Go slow at first to avoid making them feel like you have pushed them into a corner.
  • Give in a little. This may result in the other person being more lenient with their request.

Once trust has been established, and both people believe they are talking about the same issue, you can try to resolve the conflict by using persuasion tactics. .

Influence and persuade

Five approaches to persuading are given below. Think carefully about which one will defuse the situation and achieve a safe outcome. Which approach you choose will depend on your relationship with the other person, the levels of respect and trust between you, the nature of the situation and what you are trying to achieve.

  1. The ‘me vs you’ approach – (‘I have a problem with what you are doing, you need to do this, because I say so’). This is a blunt and not entirely useful approach that is often used with little thought. It can be effective at persuading others if you are in a position of authority (military command, police, teacher, boss) – but without perceived authority the other person is unlikely to be happy about receiving orders, they may resent this approach, refuse to comply, and the situation can escalate quickly.
  2. The ‘shared understanding’ approach – this is still a ‘me vs you’ approach, but is less threatening. (‘I have a problem with something you are doing and I want us both to understand where each other is coming from so that we can sort it out’). Here, the defuser clearly explains their view of the situation and listens to the perspective of others. From this position, you can reach an agreement about an effective way to resolve the situation.
  3. The neutral approach – this is where the object of the conversation is ‘the conflict’. (We both have a problem and should work together to resolve it’). Here, people are separated from their behaviours and nothing is personal. This allows the issue to be discussed without anyone feeling that they are in the wrong or feeling threatened.
  4. The listening approach – the subject of the conversation is the desired outcome. (There is a problem and I am going to keep you talking so that I can better understand and influence a positive outcome.) Here, you use listening skills, strong logical arguments and questioning techniques to encourage the other person to do what you want. By keeping them talking and listening out for the slightest agreement that they will do what you want - and then building on that, you can influence a positive outcome.
  5. The supportive approach – in this instance, the object of the conversation is the other person. (‘There is a problem and I am going to keep you talking until I hear you acknowledge this too, then I will support you to find the best solution’). Here, you use your listening skills to encourage them to explore the situation and to arrive at a suitable course of action themselves. You have no particular outcome here – other than encouraging them to resolve the conflict themselves.

Taking non-direct action

In some situations, attempting to resolve the conflict or communicating with the person(s) on your own is not an option. And so there are other response options that are worth mentioning here…

  • Take action in your community and work with others to tackle the issue through other means. You might recognise that an immediate intervention will make little impact on anti-social behaviour in the area and want to make a longer term, more sustainable approach, instead. For example, a street drinking problem is unlikely to go away by challenging a group of drinkers one night. The issue may require a careful, coordinated approach from local organisations.
  • Recruit others to support an approach or to make it on your behalf. Are you really the best person to enter the situation, or would someone else have better success?
  • Inform the relevant authorities in the right way, at the right time.
  • Prepare to be a witness – particularly in situations involving anti-social behaviour, which are also criminal. Increased levels of prosecution for anti-social behaviour will send a message that it will not be tolerated and that such behaviours do result in punishment.

If possible, you might need to delay your response to a more suitable time. If a situation has made you angry and you’re finding it difficult to manage your emotions, then it may be better not to respond immediately. Or, if you believe that the other person is likely to respond badly to your intervention (perhaps they are angry or drunk), then wait.

Non-direct responses may be doing something rather than nothing to help in a single situation – or may require ongoing and detailed effort to resolve a community problem.