Common Sense Services

Intervening in conflict?

Has this ever happened to you?

You see 2 people getting into what looks like a difficult situation, they’re looking tense, voices getting raised. You feel a responsibility to help and a desire to prevent the situation escalating. You move towards them, open your mouth and for reasons unknown to you find you have barked out an order, escalating the situation and making it about 33% more complicated.

Or how about this? You see the same 2 people priming themselves for a row, feel the same responsibility and desire to help, but you don’t. You pretend you didn’t notice and move away quickly.

If you have experienced the first scenario then you could be forgiven for feeling that the second scenario is the smart option. However, there are times when we genuinely do have a responsibility to de-escalate and maybe to resolve conflict – if we are in a position of authority e.g, their line manager or if we want to protect bystanders and maybe the participants themselves from the impact of that conflict.

So, if we need to act what steps can we take to make sure we do act but act in a way that doesn’t fling fuel on that fire?
The first thing is to recognise that conflict immediately has an impact on us all. Whether it is our conflict or if we are an observer, our internal threat detection system will identify that a threatening situation is occurring. 

The trouble is that once that detection mechanism has engaged it tends to shut down our ability to think constructively and make good judgements. Instead our threat response system offers the choice of “Hit it/ Shout at it” or “Avoid it” or “Freeze where we are and watch it.”

Once we have recognised that we will be impacted by the conflict and have got a firm grip of ourselves, the second thing to do is to prepare ourselves to intervene. That means thinking about what we are going to say.

 An enquiry is usually a better start than an instruction.

Maybe “Are you guys okay? It sounds like you are dealing with something tricky.”

Rather than “Keep it down guys, you’re yelling.”

And it’s better to approach the participants closely before speaking rather than raising your own voice from further away.

The third thing is to get on and say what we need to say. Do this in a tone of voice that you might use to cook a piece of brisket – keep it low and slow.

Starting an intervention in this way gives us a good chance of reducing the heat rather than adding to it.

If you’d like to know more about managing conflict situations effectively look out for our videos on Linkedin this autumn here