11 February 2013

Tips on How to Defuse a Volatile Situation

I was at dinner at an AP/DP conference at Wairakei Resort a couple of years ago. As we chatted about time-challenging situations, angry parents, guardians and employees popped into the agenda.

Slow things down

Winton said: ‘I look for ways to slow things down. When someone comes at you with a head of steam I say: “We need to talk about this properly.” Then I set a time the next day – it defuses the situation, gives them time to order their thoughts, and the pressure usually evaporates a bit.’

There are a bunch of benefits from this strategy.

  • They know they’ve been heard.
  • You’ve indicated you’ll do something about it.
  • With the words used you’ve implied that you want to give it the importance it deserves.
  • They’ve got time to sleep on whatever is bothering them, and it’s amazing how a night’s sleep moderates thorny issues – with the help of our sub-conscious.
  • You also have time to investigate facts and be prepared.

What about Friday?

Another ‘slow down’ strategy is to channel tricky things to the end of the week. It’s not always possible or appropriate, of course, but a great way to minimise the negative impact of energy-draining issues is to clump those tricky, difficult and potentially obstreperous people and issues into Friday afternoon. Your work is out of the way, the kids have left for the weekend, and the niggles and nuisance issues have often had time to resolve themselves.

Of course, if there’s a serious likelihood of it escalating into World War Three, deal with it before Friday!

Ask for contentious issues to be written down

If you’re new in a school or organization you usually won’t have the prior knowledge on touchy issues that come up, and it takes time to research them. If you try to deal with this kind of issue when it first flies in your face, things often get out of hand.

One way to get the information is to ask the person concerned to write down an overview of the relevant factors and their understanding of the issues.

You could create a 1-page template which you offer either in hard copy or by email. A useful framework would ask things like:

  • Who’s involved?
  • What actions have been taken?
  • What role each person has in the incident.
  • A brief outline of any background facts that should be considered.

If the upset or angry one can’t read, or can’t easily write, or English isn’t their mother tongue, you may need to modify the strategy. Their needs must be met too; their frustration will escalate if they’re disadvantaged by the system.

Benefit of a standard form: It focuses their attention; gives a succinct framework; keeps people to the facts rather than emotion; and hopefully gives you clarity.

Either they do a good job and vent some of their anger on paper and are more reasonable when you get together, or the issue goes away – because they never come back. The latter will often occur because the issue wasn’t really important, they were just sounding off, and it’s too much trouble to get their thoughts marshalled and the matter down on paper.

Either way you’re not caught short; you’ve bought yourself enough extra time to prepare and do your own investigation.

One note of caution:

If you can see that an incident is turning into a major drama, you might have to deal with it quickly. It’s important that people are acknowledged and heard; however, don’t see them on the spot, for all the reasons outlined above. You might say something like: ‘I’m sorry, but I’m unable to see you right now. I’ll be free in an hour. Here’s a form to help you get the details outlined. It would be very helpful if you could get that filled in first and then come back at ……’





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