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Tips for turning down the heat during difficult talks

Last night I randomly wrote the word “de-escalation” on a napkin during a vigorous and slightly heated discussion with my husband during dinner. The topic was the future of race relations in this country.

Yes, we really do talk about that kind of stuff. We usually do it over iPad Scrabble and a glass of wine. In our most recent exchange, we covered public safety/police training, mental health understanding (or lack thereof) and this country’s recent upsurge in dissonant exchange. It was a good discussion and a difficult one.

My spouse and I have been married more than 30 years and relish communication that encourages us to think more deeply about critical issues. Most particularly, we want to engage one another regarding the situational obstacles we expect future generations to face — and we want to do it with solutions in the forefront. Our extended family is more racially diverse than many, so this is particularly important to us.

I found the crumpled napkin with the word “de-escalation” in the recycle bin this morning, but it did not belong there. It deserves more consideration. It deserves a place at the table. To “de-escalate” means to decrease the intensity and magnitude of a conflict or a brewing confrontation. As older adults, we are often well practiced in our communication styles. But they might benefit from a little enhancement. Maybe aging adults can model how to redirect conflict and relational clashes.

There’s an online contributor, Guy Harris, who I do not know but would like to. He posted, “Three Things You Can Do to De-escalate Conflict.” His suggestions were similar to those in a 2003 article in Law and Order Magazine. I reordered these ideas in a manner that made more sense to me and added a few elements. What follows is not going to resolve the issue of race relations in this country. But one situation at a time, perhaps freshened communication approaches can make a dent.

First, “listen. “As a general rule, people feel less angry or frustrated when they feel understood. When you listen without interrupting, correcting or debating, you can help the other person feel understood even if you think that the word choice or tone rests entirely on the other person. Be nonjudgmental; allow silence. And try reflectively feeding back to the other person your understanding of what you heard. As illustration, “May I clarify? I think this is what you said … do I understand it correctly?”

The second idea from the experts is “apologize,” not for “how the other person feels” or “how they interpreted your actions.” Just apologize for the act itself. Start small; “own” your contribution.

“I’m sorry I grimaced when you mentioned that issue — forgive me.” Which leads to the final recommendation, “forgive” and do it graciously. Even if your earlier apology does not elicit an apology, nondefensively “lean into” absolvent communication. As illustration, “Please forgive me; I overstepped the line.”

The takeaway is this: If you see de-escalation in play, affirm it enthusiastically. If any of the ideas offered above have the potential to help you de-escalate a family or relational conflict — steal them. And then give them away.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.