De-Escalate: Three Essential Steps

Excerpt from De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less by Douglas E. Noll.

As you start to affect label others, you will want to go slowly. Pick safe, low-risk situations during which to practice. As you gain confidence, you may take on more challenging situations. To begin this practice, we start with the basics and expand.

Here are the three essential steps to affect labeling:

  1. Ignore the words being spoken.
  2. Guess at the emotions.
  3. Reflect the emotions with direct, declarative statements. (For example, “You are angry, frustrated, and sad.”)

Let’s go through each of these steps, one at a time.

Step One: Ignore the Words

This seems so counterintuitive to what we know. After all, words are symbols that express and communicate meaning. Why do we ignore them?

First, if you are listening to the words, you cannot listen for the emotions. Our brains have the capacity to focus on one task at a time. So, when we consciously choose to ignore the words, we are freeing up our brain processing power to focus on the emotions.

Second, angry people say nasty, mean things. If you listen to the words, you are likely to become emotionally triggered. You can easily be sucked into the conflict whirlpool. By ignoring the words and focusing on the emotions, you are insulating yourself from the upset. The words lose their bite because you don’t have time to think about the insult.

For practice, do the listening experiment at the beginning of the chapter. Listen to a television or radio or internet ad, ignoring the words and guessing at the emotions. Practice this until you can consciously turn off the words. You will master this very easily once you try it.

Step Two: Guess at the Speaker’s Emotional Experience

How do you know what emotions another person is experiencing? First, don’t think about it. This part comes naturally because we are hardwired to be empathic. All we have to do is pay attention. If we intentionally focus on the emotional experience of the other person, there are parts of our brain that will recognize, identify, and label the emotions for us effortlessly. This is not something we have to concentrate on; it will happen naturally.

To make it even easier, if we limit our list of emotions to the nine affects, we will cover 100 percent of all emotional experiences. Since we are interested in de-escalation, we really only have to remember six fundamental affects. In the usual order of presentation, they are:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Disgust
  • Grief-Shame-Humiliation
  • Abandonment/Unloved

To practice focusing on an emotional experience, watch television or listen to a radio ad again. Actors are good at portraying emotions. How good are they? Ignore the words, and using the list, label the emotions as they come up. You will observe that emotions change quickly. Keep with the basic list and label every emotion that comes up. You will find that you do not have to think much about this. If you let yourself go, the emotions will come to you automatically.

Since we cannot be inside of someone else’s head, we really are guessing at their emotional experience. However, humans have a limited repertoire of emotions. If you stick with the basic list, you will almost always be right. The other good thing is that there is no penalty for guessing wrong. Usually, if you label the wrong emotion, the speaker will correct you, saying, “No, I’m not angry. I am frustrated!” In that case, you simply repeat the affect label by saying, “Oh, you are frustrated.” I have never heard of or experienced someone becoming upset because the wrong emotion was labeled. People are so grateful that you are trying to really listen to them that they don’t criticize your mistakes.

Step Three: Reflect Back the Emotions Using Declarative “You” Statements

This is just as simple as it seems. The most effective statement is the short, declarative “You” statement. For example:

“You are angry.”
“You are frustrated.”
“You are anxious.”

Decades ago, people were taught to use an “I” statement when engaging in reflective listening. For example, “What I think you are feeling is anger.” This does not work well in affect labeling. When you affect label, you must be focused completely on the speaker. There is no room for your ego. Your “I” must remain parked outside, and the easiest way to keep your ego in check is to use “You” statements.

My students sometimes protest that using a “You” statement seems presumptuous or rude. The objection is based on the student’s fear of looking stupid, being wrong, or appearing incompetent. Ego is getting in the way. The best way to learn this is to test it yourself.

Find a willing friend. Tell him that you want to experiment with an idea you have been studying. Ask your friend to tell a short story about something that happened in the past day or so. Try affect labeling using “I” statements; switch and use “You” statements. Then ask your friend what the experience was like. Most of the time, people will report that they felt deeply listened to when “You” statements were used and not listened to at all when “I” statements were used. Check it out for yourself. Try this on several different friends to get a good sense of the power of “You” statements.

As you affect label an angry or upset person, watch carefully for three things: First, listen for some kind of verbal response. Usually this will be an “Uh-huh,” or something like it. Oftentimes, you will hear a “Yeah!” with a strong emphasis. This happens when you have connected with the speaker. The speaker is unconsciously affirming that you understand.

Second, watch for dropping shoulders. When people are angry, they tense their shoulders and raise them. When they calm down, they relax their shoulders so that the shoulders drop. This is another unconscious indication of de-escalation.

Finally, watch for a sigh, exhalation, or other sign of relaxation. In addition to the verbal response and the dropping shoulders, you will often witness such an unconscious indication that the person is calming down.


De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less

De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less

Buy your copy from Beyond Words

Discover how to successfully and efficiently calm an angry person or diffuse a volatile situation in ninety seconds or less with this proven and accessible peacekeeping method by self-described “lawyer turned peacemaker” Douglas E. Noll.

We live in an increasingly divided world and most of us have encountered our fair share of aggressive people and difficult confrontations. Fortunately, we now have the tools to become peacemakers and transform emotionally volatile situations and hurt feelings to calm, non-aggressive ones.

Tested on prison inmates, De-Escalate offers a new set of social listening and communication skills, based on the latest findings in neuroscience and meditation. Along with practical exercises and scenario-based examples, each chapter focuses on specific themes, such as dealing with emotionally charged teenagers and frustrated coworkers. Additionally, Noll shares practical tips on how to be civil in an uncivil society.

With De-Escalate, we can bring peace to all facets of life, cultivate healthier relationships, and participate in creating a more caring and compassionate future for us all.

1 Response


July 31, 2018

Gostei muito! Gratidão

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