Conflict Management | How to De-escalate a Potential Violent Situation

The first question I ask myself when confronted by an aggressive, and potentially violent person or persons, is did they orchestrate and plan this situation or did it happen spontaneously. If an aggressor, such as a mugger, has a planned outcome in mind, you have two options: to acquiesce and give in to their demands, or to refuse and fight them – in such a situation you have to decide whether you are fighting for ego or for survival e.g. if someone is holding a gun to your head and demanding your wallet, then refusing to hand it over to them is more about ego than survival; if someone tries to move you from one location to another (abduct you), fighting back is all about survival. 
In a spontaneous situation, the violence occurred due to your actions and behaviors, whether real or perceived e.g. somebody believes you spilt a drink over them, and your aggressor, probably has no determined outcomes in mind – they are just emotional and aggressive; they don’t know what will resolve the situation for them. In such a situation you can probably avoid the fight through de-escalation. Why do you want to avoid the fight? Because you’re aggressor is probably armed, has friends who can come to their assistance, and is probably bigger, stronger, more athletic etc. than you are. If you believe you are capable of dealing with multiple, armed assailants, make your case, personally I’d rather avoid that fight.
When a person has become aggressive due to the situation, rather than having planned to become violent (such as in a mugging or sexual assault where they have orchestrated the situation to achieve a specific goal), de-escalation is always an option. I will offer one caveat: if they are in such a heightened emotional state, that they can’t understand what you are saying, then forget it – you need to either act pre-emptively, with an attack or walk away (if that is a possibility).  When an individual loses verbal control and reasoning, such as meeting your questions with silence, or by jumbling up their words when they respond – such as “you drink my spilt” - you need to start thinking about physical solutions: the time for talking is over. If your aggressor is able to respond to what you say – and it is a spontaneous situation – then de-escalation, conflict resolution and avoidance of a physical confrontation is possible.
Have you ever asked somebody who is angry to calm down? If you have you were probably met with the response/retort, “I AM CALM!” When people are emotional they stop using their reasoning, rational brain and start to act more like animals. Animals resolve most of their internal pack disputes and conflicts through acts of posturing and submission e.g. if wolves have an issue about where they stand in the pecking order, or whose bone is whose etc. one dog in the wolf pack will growl, snarl, and act mean until the other rolls over – where the dispute then ends. 
If somebody becomes highly emotional due to something you have done, their brain will have moved gears to the point where they are seeing the world as an animal would and they will interpret everything you say and do as being either an act of posturing or one of submission. Regardless of how nicely you say it, the request for calm will be seen as you making an order e.g. posturing – you told them to calm down; you ordered them, instructed them etc. It doesn’t matter how nicely/politely you told/asked someone to calm down, at the end of the day it is an order, and that can only be interpreted as “posturing” and this will only escalate the situation. Statements such as, “Calm down”, “Don’t Shout”, “Stop doing that” etc. are only going to antagonize your aggressor further.
If you want to de-escalate a situation there is, by and large, one route forward: ask questions to force them to use their reasoning/rational brain, and stop relying on their emotional brains which operate according to emotions e.g. posture, submit, fight, flight etc. If you can force a person to consider solutions to a situation, that doesn’t rely on violence you are 9/10ths of the way there. For somebody to act violently they have to believe they are justified to act violently, and that there are no alternative options open to them. When you ask questions, an aggressor, has to, HAS TO, consider the alternative routes open to them e.g. if you spill a drink over a person, there is a multitude of non-physical solutions and resolutions to the situation: you could buy them another drink, pay for their dry cleaning etc. It is just that they are so emotional and angry because of the incident they aren’t able to consider these alternatives; they are seeing only one option available to them, which is violence. When you ask a question, you are forcing them to engage with their rational, reasoning brain, and stop using their animal brain. If you ask somebody, “What could I do to sort this out?” you are directing them to use their reasoning brain, and stop acting like an animal e.g. taking the emotion out of the situation, de-escalating it.
By getting them to suggest solutions to you, you are also allowing them the opportunity to posture to you, which will satisfy part of their emotional needs in the situation; they are going to present solutions to you rather than the other way round. If you say to them, after spilling their drink, “I’ll buy you another drink”, that is you telling them what will resolve the situation i.e. you are posturing, if you give them the opportunity to consider a non-violent resolution, and they say, “you can buy me another drink”, then you are allowing them to posture to you, and by agreeing you are acting in a similar fashion to the wolf that rolls over – where the dispute then ends.
In any type of conflict resolution and negotiation, you have to be prepared to be decisive and act physically if necessary. In a hostage situation, there aren’t just negotiators, there are tactical response units who are ready to respond at any point if the negotiations break down. If you are attempting to de-escalate a situation, you should also be prepared to act physically, if it seems that your own “negotiations” are also breaking down – you must talk softly (figuratively) and carry a big stick.

About the author:

Gershon Ben Keren has been training in Krav Maga since 1994 in both Israel and Europe. He holds a 3rd Degree Black Belt in Krav Maga in Israel, where he also received his teaching certification. He has been trained by some of the IDF's (Israeli Defense Forces) most experienced and respected Krav Maga instructors. In December 2011, he was inducted into the "Museum of Israeli Martial Arts" at the Israeli Martial Arts Center in Herzilya. He has taught Krav Maga to civilians, security personnel, law enforcement agencies, and to members of elite military units and Special Forces. He also holds a 2nd Degree Black Belt in Judo and has won regional and national titles in Judo tournaments.

He has a Master's Degree in Psychology, with particular reference to violence and aggressive behavior, and incorporates this knowledge into the reality based self-defense training that he provides. He lives and teaches Krav Maga in Boston, running Krav Maga Yashir Boston.

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