The Art of Deescalation

One of the hardest challenges in interpersonal dynamics is how to stay fluid and soft (as opposed to armored and entrenched) when both people are in distress. Even though I understand what's happening, and the way through it, I find this maddeningly difficult to manage when I'm one of the players. I just can't seem to avoid falling into the pit of tat for tit, and I say some of the most damaging and regrettable (not to mention embarrassing and unhelpful) things when I'm caught in this whirlpool.

Here's how it typically unfolds. (While it's not hard to picture the geometric complications possible when there are many people in distress, it's enough for the main points I want to make to concentrate on the simpler, two-person version of this dynamic) Person A has a strong reaction to something Person B did (or did not do) or said (or did not say). Person B then has a strong reaction to Person A's expressing their distress, probably feeling unfairly accused, blindsided, or grossly misunderstood.

Now we're off to the races. Absent the ability for someone to get off the merry-go-round, both people then proceed to engage in a largely unproductive impromptu poetry slam, following the rhyme scheme of ABABABAB... ad nauseam. At its worst, the protagonists are exchanging blows, not information. People get hurt, and the pain of the initial reactions gets deepened. Yuck!

In general, when someone is in serious distress, the road to getting unstuck starts with a recognition to the distressed person's satisfaction of what they're experiencing. This means demonstrating to the upset person that you grok the essence of both their feelings and their story. It is not necessary that you agree with their position or have the same personal reaction; you just need to be able to show the person that you get what's happening for them. (Note: this includes getting the affect right, not just the words.)

The essential problem when both A and B are upset is who goes first. Each wants to be held by the other as a precondition to extending that same support the other way. The result is a stalemate. It is damn hard in the heat of the moment to unilaterally step back from your own distress, get centered, and reach out with compassion and empathy to the other person—the person you feel provoked by. And even if you can make the herculean effort to offer this, that doesn't mean it will be well received (or that you'll even get credit for the attempt)—remember, the other person is feeling provoked by you as well and is highly likely to question the authenticity of your olive branch. It's a train wreck.

This is hard even when you truly care about the relationship with the other person, and just about impossible with someone you find consistently provocative and don't have much relationship with.

What are your options? I can think of four.

1. Get help
If there's someone else nearby that's acceptably neutral to both parties, by all means ask that person to facilitate the deescalation. Hint: This is much easier to negotiate if there's an agreement about how to do this (such as I've tried to outline above).

2. Take a break
If help isn't an option, it may be best to simply stop and allow each other time to cool off. It's generally easier to find a softer place in your heart once you've had a chance to lick your wounds and reflect. Self care can be an incredible balm, yet you need to be careful here: sometimes people use time in a neutral corner to intensify the poison, only to return to the engagement with increased viciousness.

3. Call a truce
If this occurs often enough in a relationship you care about, you can make an agreement to name this dynamic and call a cease fire, expressly for the purpose of seeing to it that both parties get battlefield Rx to staunch the arterial bleeding before proceeding. The key here is making the agreement ahead of time, so that it can be invoked in the heat of the moment.

4. Name that feeling
One option to consider is learning to recognize distress as soon as it emerges in yourself and then reporting on that, rather than lashing out from it. Thus, suppose Person A starts things off with, "What do you mean we need to be leaving for a party in 15 minutes? Why the hell didn't you didn't you tell ahead of time? You know I hate surprises like this!"

Following this guideline, Person B might say in response, "I'm having a strong reaction to what you just said," rather than, "Goddamit, I did tell you last week that the party was tonight!" While there is no guarantee that the first sentence will land less provocatively than the second, it's got a better chance.