By Dr. Doron Pely

Several kinds of conflicts seem to be escalating in the United States in recent months. Police officers in quite a few cities are accused of using unnecessary violence (many times with fatal results) in situations where a less lethal approach may have been a viable option. Communities across the country divide across fault lines defined by their interpretation and response to such events. Elsewhere, emergency room staff (mostly nurses and doctors) increasingly find themselves coping with traumatizing instances of verbal and physical abuse by patients and their families, while teachers at all levels of the educational system often feel threatened by pupils and their family members.

It seems that we, as a culture, are becoming quite adept at conflict escalation; we are investing the resources required to develop the tools, vocabularies, tactics and acclimatization techniques needed to ramp up disputes quite rapidly and energetically. Maybe it’s time to dedicate the same serious resources to mastering the other side of the conflict coin – de-escalation.

De-escalation is not a religion – it’s not a dogmatic dictate. Nor is it a rigid set of rules that are not open to discussion or modification. De-escalation techniques adopt and evolve constantly. De-escalation is not even a strategy. It’s not designed to provide a broad, overarching solution to the multiple challenges of diverse conflict situations. Instead, de-escalation is a tactical tool – a focused, acquired art form aimed at achieving compliance, cooperation and collaboration in many conflict situations, while employing the most effective, efficient and energy-conserving methods.

De-escalation techniques can help with the following:

  • Inter and intra communal disputes
  • Disputes between care givers and patients and their families
  • Disputes between law enforcement and individuals, groups or communities
  • Disputes between educators and pupils and their families

Why does de-escalation have a chance to work? It provides the platform disputants often need to climb down from tall positional trees; and it may provide a less costly and less traumatic path to managing and resolving disputes.

There are many de-escalation approaches. This post presents a technique called Assertive Honoring. This is a cross between key elements of indigenous customary justice practices and modern dispute resolution approaches – combining empathy, honoring, face-saving and flame-reducing moves with tools designed to offer rational options, appeals to interests and eye-level persuasion – all presented from an assertive point of view.

Assertive Honoring offers the following tools:

  • Emotional Hijacking Avoidance – Re-assert authority through avoidance of “fight or flight” reactions, delayed response, and the enlisting of third-party assistance.
  • Employing “Yes” Questions – Establish positive dialogue, without the annoying reflective questions.
  • Transitioning from Positions to Needs – Restore dignity, confidence and calm by trying to identify the true needs of the other party and responding to them whenever possible by presenting clear, viable options.
  • Executing a “Positive No” Response – Reframe responses to demands in a way that projects empathy, helps reduce resentment and facilitates moves toward de-escalation and possible resolution.
  • Empowering Proactive Team Solidarity – Use colleagues and team members judiciously to avoid escalation, increase safety, and enhance de-escalation.

Note: These are but a sample of the de-escalation “toolbox” that is available with Assertive Honoring.

Using Assertive Honoring may help achieve the following goals:

  • Establish authority – Making sure the other side understands clearly who you are, your role, and why you’re here.
  • Assert control – Facilitating leadership of the narrative (determine the direction of the de-escalation effort, instead of ignoring or reacting, thus losing control).
  • Establish an atmosphere Mutual Honoring – Creating a climate of respect that will allow the other side to also choose a de-escalation option.
  • Neutralizing insults – Deflecting and redirecting insults disables their power to drive our reactions. Reacting, rather than acting, transfers control to the other party.
  • Make language a major, professional tool – Using language the way an actor uses it on stage, where every word and every gesture serves a purpose and counts. Just like your uniform, or the way we fulfill various professional tasks based on extensive training and forethought, so should language on the job be an extension of your very same professionalism.
  • Harvest the power of persuasion – Treat persuasion and use it with the respect it deserves; after all, it’s one of our most powerful tools.
  • Enlist the force of civility – To increase power and control.
  • Use empathy – As an operational intelligence tool (it gives you the benefit of a look into how the other side feels and what the other side sees) and to establish a common platform for negotiations.
  • Avoid orders and threats – Despite the urge to do so, it pays to avoid ordering and/or threatening. They rarely work in conflict situations, simply because rational thinking is only marginally involved. Thus, they get little traction.
  • Maintain a respectful and non-patronizing or mocking tone – This is another power-enhancing tool.
  • Actively help people save face and regain a sense of honor – The more they do, the less of threat they’ll be.
  • Escalate only when you decide that it’s time to do so – escalating the conflict is an option that is always available, but it should be used judiciously, not to cover failures to de-escalate.

But Does De-escalation Really Work?

It appears that it does. Every professional crisis negotiator can attest to the functionality of de-escalation. Here’s the empirical data. Clinical and forensic psychologist Laurence Miller writes, “Containment and negotiation strategies have been shown to yield a 95% success rate in terms of resolving a hostage crisis without fatalities to either hostages or hostage-takers (HTs), a remarkable statistic for any form of lifesaving crisis intervention strategy.”

Moreover, one of the best documented examples of the value of de-escalation may be found in the 2005 forced-pullout of about 8,000 Israeli settlers from 21 settlements in the Palestinian Gaza strip. Some 55,000 Israeli soldiers and police faced thousands of angry, anguished and considerably aggressive Jewish settlers and their supporters who vowed never to leave their homes in the settlements, despite a formal pullout decision by the Israeli government of the then-Prime Minister General (ret.) Ariel Sharon. Yet, apart from sporadic incidents of escalated violence, mostly involving teenage religious zealots from elsewhere in Israel, the operation went smoothly.

One of the main reasons the pullout succeeded was a substantial de-escalation effort conceived by military psychologists and executed through education, training and extensive simulations that involved thousands of troops and police. The methods adopted by the commanders of the operation were very similar to the Assertive Honoring tactic explained above.

For example, here is what The Chicago Tribune reports about the approach adopted by the operation’s commander: “Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of the army’s southern command, led by example as he listened, prayed and even danced with settlers. But Oren said Harel never ‘budged an inch’ about his purpose for being there.”

Not only the commanders trained and practiced de-escalation, all of the troops that participated in the operation underwent extensive indoctrination and training: “Army psychologists said the Israeli Defense Forces worked for months to prepare. Some planning sessions were held a year ago. Training for the soldiers, in intense three-week seminars, began just before the pullout. Soldiers role-played during exercises in a residential area of Ofakim, an Israeli town near Gaza.”

The German newspaper Der Spiegel provides some additional insight into the effort that went into creating the needed de-escalation skills during the pullout operation: “So far, soldiers have only had to deal with staged situations, exercises that are intended to be as realistic as possible in order to prepare them for the most delicate mission in Israel’s military history — the evacuation of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. More than a thousand Israeli soldiers at the Zeelim training in camp in the desert run through such exercises every day in preparation for when they will be called upon to remove their own countrymen from their homes. For the training program, a replica of a Palestinian village the army had created to practice street combat, was quickly transformed into a Jewish settlement.”

In view of the challenges facing so many communities and individuals, it appears that de-escalation as a possible major tool of conflict management deserves serious re-consideration. Yet, it is also clear that to be given a chance to demonstrate its true utility, de-escalation needs to be allowed to stand on a solid foundation of training and simulation. But even more so, it needs to stand on a solid commitment by all stakeholders – policy makers and field operatives alike – to make a concerted effort to orient their organizations’ cultures, as well as their personal attitude toward a willingness to give this tactic a chance.

De-escalation is by no means a be-all and end-all solution to conflict mitigation, management and resolution challenges in the domains discussed above. However, it may become a major tool in a broad toolbox, and it should be used as such – always with a view to the safety and welfare of the people impacted by its presence or absence.

Dr. Doron Pely is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center in Israel. Doron studies and teaches Muslim customary conflict and conflict management practices. His experience combines military (Lieutenant), police intelligence (field and analysis), business intelligence, executive duties, and academic and field research. Doron earned his PhD in Middle East Studies from King’s College, London.