Right To Be
Our Guide to Conflict De-escalation
What is Conflict De-escalation?

We often experience a moment of hesitation when we find ourselves witnessing someone in an unsafe environment. We wonder: What should I do? Will I make it worse if I say something? How can I help the situation?

Conflict de-escalation is a strategy to prevent people from escalating into violence. It’s designed to help communities protect and take care of each other using an approach that, if successful, can limit or completely eliminate the need for police intervention. This condensed resource, based on Right To Be’s Conflict De-escalation Training, aims to educate bystanders and give you the tools to determine whether you’re the right person to safely de-escalate a conflict. 

This resource, and the associated training, are both created in collaboration with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, an organization based in Washington, D.C. working to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all. Recent years have seen a rise in anti-Asian/American racism, as well as racism toward other communities of color and/or immigrant communities in the US. It’s important that we all do our part to be prepared to de-escalate conflict we witness, and to prevent further harm where and when we can.

The topics we’ll discuss in this resource are sensitive and may be triggering to some. Prior to and during your reading, please do what you need to take care of yourself. To keep our resilience resources on hand in a separate tab while you read, please click here.

What Does Conflict Start With? Often, Bias

Before we dive into de-escalating conflict, it is critical to understand what exactly we are up against. Conflict, understood in this resource as a situation where two parties are heated or aggravated because one party has possibly harassed the other, often begins with bias. 

Bias is identity-based prejudice toward a person, group, or community. It can be based on anything from race, sex, and gender expression to perceived power, economic or social status. Explicit bias is more outward and direct, whereas implicit bias is subconscious. At Right To Be, we recognize that both kinds of bias are harmful and discriminatory to all people of color and historically marginalized communities. 

During times of societal pressure, such as a pandemic, or in areas with high political tensions, these detrimental viewpoints have a tendency to become heightened and displayed more often. A few examples of common racial bias are:

  • Assuming that communities of color are “dirty” and don’t follow rules
  • Assuming people without English language fluency are “dumb”
  • Assuming people who live in certain neighborhoods will cause more trouble 

 

It is important to recognize the bias of the person or people harassing others – but it’s equally important to recognize how, as bystanders, our own bias may show up. We should ask ourselves: would I perceive the situation the same way if the people involved were white? 

Before you attempt to de-escalate conflict…

Conflict de-escalation is not easy. While bystander intervention is something anyone can do, conflict de-escalation requires:

  • patience,
  • a willingness to listen,
  • and ultimately the ability to see the humanity in everyone, even if they are hurtful. 

 

Keep in mind that these aren’t fixed qualities that some people just have and others don’t. Each of us can recall moments when we could be patient and moments when we couldn’t be. For each of us to figure out if we are the right person to intervene at a given moment, we must know ourselves and intuit where we’re at in this moment. 

Right To Be’s Approach to Conflict De-escalation
5d
Observe

First, observe the environment. Pay attention to the behavior of the people involved from a safe distance. At this point, ask yourself if you are the right person to step in.

 

To help you analyze the situation, use Right To Be’s “Pyramid of Escalation.”

 

This is simply a tool to determine how escalated the situation you’re observing is. The lowest level is agitation, followed by escalation, followed finally by peak conflict. Agitation includes signs like aggressive body language, eye-rolling, and loud sighs. (Keep in mind, though, that gestures such as eye-rolling can sometimes be displayed by folks who are neurodivergent, such as autistic folks, without aggressive intentions behind them.) Escalation includes signs like pacing, finger pointing, aggressive tone, raised voice, or argument. Peak conflict includes signs like verbal abuse (i.e. shaming, humiliation, harassment), spitting or inappropriate touching/gestures, physical aggression, or possible display of weapons. Observe where the situation is on the pyramid. Ask yourself: Could my identities put me at increased risk? Is the person escalating the situation intoxicated?

 

Without full preparation and awareness of the dangers, getting involved in conflict poses a risk to everyone involved, and can possibly make things worse. When de-escalating a situation, always prioritize your own safety. If you are unable to de-escalate safely, utilize Right To Be’s 5Ds of bystander intervention instead. 

5d
Breathe

After you are fully aware of what you are stepping into, breathe before you take any sort of action. 

 

We can’t emphasize enough that safety is the number one priority when it comes to de-escalating a conflict – and if you are agitated, anxious, or angry when you intervene, the situation could escalate and put you and others in increased danger. 

 

Each of us has our own strategies to self-soothe. Maybe yours is to take three deep breaths, or maybe it’s to release the tension in your stance by relaxing your shoulders, fists, and knees one by one. You can try box breathing: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold for 4 seconds – and then repeat the cycle for several rounds.

 

Fun fact: box breathing is a strategy used by members of the military before they approach a conflict or stressful situation. It’s key to de-escalate ourselves before de-escalating others. If we neglect this, we increase the likelihood of adding more tension and built-up emotions to an already volatile, potentially dangerous, situation. Please, check in with yourself before you decide to show up for others.

 

Here are more ideas for de-escalating your own emotions first:

  • Breathe deeply
  • Self-encouragement/mantras, affirmations, or meditations
  • Notice if you’re clenching or tightening parts of your body
  • Feel your feet on the ground (and your back in your chair if you have one)
  • Talk to someone you trust
  • Name your emotions
  • Find ways to release emotion
5d
Connect

Now that you have safely analyzed the situation and your own level of agitation, and you feel grounded in your abilities, you’re ready to step in. 

 

The proven way to de-escalate a situation? Connection. By connecting with the person, you’ve created an opportunity to build empathy for everyone involved…and from here comes progress. Through empathy, we’re able to validate and de-escalate each other’s feelings, even when we don’t understand them. Conflict de-escalation is not about acting as a mediator and coming to some sort of peaceful resolution. Instead, our goal when de-escalating a conflict is to give that person the feeling that they are heard, and that not everyone is out to get them.

 

How can you connect? Ask this person if they would like to have a conversation with you; offer to walk them somewhere away from the conflict; ask clarifying and open-ended questions that allow you to repeat back to them what they’ve told you. Give this individual your undivided attention by maintaining soft direct eye contact. Focus on their feelings, not their opinions. Remember that there are some experiences and emotions that you may not understand or agree with, and you don’t have to understand or agree with them to assure them that what they’re going through is valid, to bring down the energy level. De-escalating a conflict isn’t the place for arguing, disregarding, belittling, or any sort of lengthy monologue. It’s just about bringing volatile feelings to a less explosive level.

 

Our hope is that with these tips, you’ll be able to make a difference. 

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YOU ARE POWERFUL

Remember, everyone can do something. At this time in our history, it is even more important that we show up for one another as active bystanders. Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.

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