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A lot of interpersonal/communication advice out there centers on helping to de-escalate conflicts when you're personally involved in them or can take a mediating role. However, what do you do if you notice a tendency in someone else to escalate conflicts that you're not present for, but that they go to you to talk about?

When someone's already feeling wronged, I think outright telling them that you think they contributed to the conflict could easily backfire. Are there techniques to help open their minds to the idea of trying to resolve interpersonal conflicts mutually instead of fighting back?

Edit to answer the comments: In this specific case, it's someone who comes to me for venting and advice in general, but hasn't asked for me to weigh in specifically on their style of conflict resolution. Sometimes they do say things like, "I don't know what to do!" when describing a current conflict with someone else. Per Tinkeringbell's question, I don't know whether I should provide direct feedback but I would like to help them be more aware of how they are contributing to conflict escalation and what they can do instead. So "provide direct feedback" could be an answer to this question. Per baldPrussian's question, the answer is pretty much "yes" with the caveat that my expectation is that they would change their behavior if they knew how, and my goal is to help them know how, not to make them change their behavior if that is actually against their will.

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    So, just to be clear, you're looking for a way to tell your friend that 'he's guilty too'? Something like providing feedback on what he could have done better in that conflict situation? – Tinkeringbell May 3 '18 at 19:48
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    Has your friend explicitly asked for help with the conflict(s), or do they just come to you to vent? – Em C May 3 '18 at 19:57
  • Just to be clear: you want to know how to change your friends behavior so they do not escalate conflicts that they are in, when you're not there to moderate their behavior? – baldPrussian May 3 '18 at 20:14
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One thing I was taught in customer service is that anger escalates when people feel that they are not being heard, which is why telling someone that they contributed to the matter doesn't work.

Deescalating as an interpersonal skill involves several things.

  1. Acknowledge the person's feelings as valid. One thing we were taught was the phrase. "I understand, if I were you, I'd feel the same way". This is not a lie, if you were the person, you would feel the same way
  2. Listening to the person. Don't interrupt, let them get their points across. Just being heard is sometimes enough
  3. Ask how you can help. Another phrase we were taught was "What can I do to make this right?" Ask that, or something akin to it, and again. Listen.

The reason this works is it first disarms the person's anger, then redirects their mindset to one of problem solving and resolution instead of fighting.

"What can I do to make this right" or "How can we fix this" or something to that effect gets the person to think not of revenge, or escalation, but instead to resolution and reconciliation.

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I would try to bring into the conversation the fact that the escalation of the conflict was a negative outcome in itself, without assigning any blame to your friend.

Friend: "How annoying is the fall-out from my potentially avoidable conflict with Timmy?"

Me: "Yeah, really annoying. Dealing with people like Timmy is so difficult. They do something bad and then things just escalate which is even more frustrating and timewasting. What can one even do about such people?"

I try to frame the outcome as being the result of 1) Timmy's hopelessness, and 2) the escalation of the conflict (also Timmy's fault). Hopefully statements like this can create some kind of space where conflict de-escalation can be discussed as a general concept/strategy, without saying that your friend was wrong not to use it. Even discussing deescalation might mean it's a strategy they'll be aware of and think about next time.

Alternatively, if you want to be more specific and gently suggest things that you feel they should do, you could try phrasing it as a story or incident where you witnessed a co-worker (etc) doing effective conflict resolution and mentioning how you were impressed by them and want to try it yourself. Saying something like

Last week in the cafeteria, Timmy did something and then Jane did some awesome deescalation (sorry for the lack of imagination...) and I thought I should try that some time

frames the situation as you and your friend on the same level, thinking how you can incorporate new strategies into your lives.

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Richard U has an excellent answer on what to do at the moment someone comes to you when he's at a loss. First de-escalating his current anger is definitely the right way to go. This answer is for when you have a regular talk with that person when he's not agrevated already. (Maybe see it as an elaboration of his 3d step).

The idea is to make him think about his actions himself more than trying to really change him. You can use a question like:

Hey here's an interesting thought: Do you know why < other person > stopped listening to you when you were only halfway through your sentence?

If they're looking at you confused or responding "no":

well let's turn it around. When they were making a point, were you trying to understand their point or were you only thinking about how to explain them they were wrong?

I bet at this point they'll make a click that there's a big difference between "being right" and "being heard". If not, feel free to directly spell it out to them.

From here on out you can either provide them with info about inerpersonal skills if they're interested, or tell them where they can ask how to handle interpersonal situations.
Or if they really aren't interested in learning how not to escalate things you can just fall back to being their venting place and perhaps try the same approach with the one he's fighting with instead.

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