How to keep your cool when all about you, are losing theirs (and blaming it on you)

We’ve all been in one of those rapidly deteriorating situations, where everyone is losing their cool, people are shouting, fingers are being pointed and relationships are about to be irreversibly damaged.  It can be very easy to get sucked into the melee and join the maelstrom of emotions.  But it’s not helpful.  Not for you and not for the people you’re doing battle with.  A positive resolution is far more likely if you’re able to keep cool as a cucumber, let it all wash over you and come back with a reasoned and measured response.

I made that sound easy didn’t I?  Sadly it’s not.  Keeping your cool amidst madness is one of the toughest skills you can ever try to master, but if you manage it, it will pay dividends whether your conflict is with students, staff or parents.

Here are a few ideas to help you keep calm in conflict situations:

Physically distance yourself from the conversation

When tempers rise people will often move into each other’s personal space.  This is extremely uncomfortable and can feel hugely intimidating to all involved.  It will also make your body move towards a fight or flight response if you’re scared.  So take a step or two back.  Physically distance yourself from what is going on and continue the conversation from a distance that you feel comfortable with.  Keep moving away if you need to – but try not to get yourself backed into a corner!

Relax your body to relax your mind

Confrontation makes us tense, angry, excited, scared – a whole range of emotions and physical reactions. But NOT relaxed.  However, relaxed is the state we need to be approaching if we’re going to give a calm and measured response.  It’s possible, with practice, to trick your mind into feeling more relaxed by forcing your body to physically relax.  You can do this by breathing deeply and slowly, relaxing your muscles – you’ll often find they’re tensed.  And stretching and wiggling your fingers can be surprisingly effective in giving you a part of your body that people probably won’t notice you moving, but that you can focus on relaxing.  As you relax your body, you’ll find your mind starts to race less and you can respond more appropriately to the situation.

Do not move the conversation to a private place

Our instinct reaction when anger occurs is often to move the conversation somewhere private.  However, it is usually a better idea to allow the conversation to continue in as public a place as possible.  This is because however angry someone might feel, they will soon begin to feel uncomfortably ranting and raving in front of other people – especially if you are responding calmly.  It also reduces any chance of the situation escalating to physical violence.

Count to five before speaking

This is a simple trick you’re probably well aware of.  But do you do it?  Count slowly to five before responding to inflammatory or provocative comments as your first reaction is unlikely to be appropriate or helpful in de-escalating the situation.

Speak calmly and quietly

Never respond to anger with anger.  No matter how loudly you are shouted at, keep your voice calm, level and maybe even speak a little more quietly than usual.  If you are shouted over, stand completely silently and wait for the other person to stop and listen – they will eventually – then continue speaking calmly and quietly.  You may have to stop and resume several times but a calm and measured response almost always wins out in the end.

Use ‘and’ not ‘but’

Think carefully about your exact use of language.  Even if you do not agree with what is being said, think about how you can use your language to manipulate the situation slightly.  Responding with ‘BUT’ is tantamount to saying ‘I disagree!  I think….’ Whereas ‘AND’ conveys ‘I hear what you’ve said and I would like to add…’ Language is a powerful tool.  Use it.

Get into their shoes

Why is this person so angry?  Try to see things from their point of view rather than just your own.  Empathising with their situation and using phrases like ‘I understand how frustrated you must feel’ (and meaning it) can be a quick way to calm a volatile situation down and allow you to have a frank talk about the key problems without the need for shouting.

Look for a win-win solution

This isn’t always possible but you should always remain flexible and be prepared to move from your original viewpoint if there is some way in which a compromise can be reached that leaves all parties happy.

Don’t drag other people into the situation

It is rarely helpful to draw more people into the conflict, and if you bring in someone additional ‘on your side’ then this can often cause tempers to rise even further as the angry party tries to fight their corner against mounting defence.  As a general rule, the more voices involved, the louder and angrier things will get.  So if you can, try to deal with the situation yourself.  But never, put yourself in a dangerous situation and if you’re completely out of your depth, you should of course ask for help.

Fall back on policy

This is something that can work well with parents, if you have been entirely unable to resolve a situation, fall back on your school’s complaints policy.  Tell the parent that they need to put their complaint in writing addressed to the head and chair of governors (or whatever the system is in your school) and explain that it will be dealt with as a matter of priority.  Explain that you are unable to escalate the problem any further, that you are sorry, you understand their frustration and you will happily be involved in any meetings arising from their complaint.  Most parents will go home, calm down and be ready to talk more reasonably whether through the complaints procedure (which can be very useful) or in another way.

Have you had to deal with conflict at school?  Do you have any ideas to add?  Please leave a comment with your thoughts and suggestions.

If you would like further help in managing conflict situations you might like our ‘Managing Conflict and Dealing with Difficult People’ course which is run 24 times per year in 8 locations throughout the UK.  Or can be delivered in your school at a time to suit you.


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