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‘Don’t be the match’: How to be a peacemaker in a combustible culture

From the campaign trail to Iran, de-escalation has been in the news lately. It’s not just a concept, but a set of skills that anyone can learn to stop road rage or improve a marriage.

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In this Jan. 14, 2020, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., interact after a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. Candidate businessman Tom Steyer looks on.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — When tension was rising between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders recently, her staff gave pithy advice to Warren’s supporters: de-escalate.

It’s a trendy term with ancient roots that gained prominence in the 1980s, when police departments across the country began training cadets on how to defuse tense situations. Jesus likely never used the word “de-escalate” but captured its essence when he said “blessed are the peacemakers” in the Sermon on the Mount

“ ... understanding the other side doesn’t mean that you agree with them.” — Juan Diaz-Prinz, a senior expert on mediation and dialogue at the U.S. Institute of Peace

De-escalation is essentially peacemaking, dialing back tension before a conflict gets worse.

Professional peacemakers, such as diplomats and mediators, learn strategies to calm tension, just as police officers and other first responders do. Many medical providers receive training as well; a retired sheriff’s deputy in Wisconsin who teaches de-escalation said his company trains more nurses than any other profession.

De-escalation is not just a concept, but a practical set of strategies that anyone can learn. The techniques comprise a peacemaking toolbox that could help the next time you argue with your spouse or a co-worker, or are confronted with road rage. (Or if someone refuses to shake your hand on the dais in the House of Representatives or tears up your speech.)

And fractured as it is internally, the U.S. is a world leader in teaching people in other nations how to calm down. Here are five techniques from experts in conflict management that can help you be a peacemaker in your family and community.

‘Ask as much as you say’

Juan Diaz-Prinz, a senior expert on mediation and dialogue at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has helped resolve conflicts in Bosnia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, among other places — as well as in his own home, where political differences among relatives can sometimes make family gatherings tense.

Diaz-Prinz lived and worked in Germany for eight years, and when he returned to the United States in 2018, said he was shocked to find how fractious his homeland had become while he was away, but he still believes the country can repair itself. “America is a leader in thinking on conflict resolution,” he said. “There’s a lot of hope. We need to get back to doing some of the things we know.”

Diaz-Prinz said that when people don’t think about their interactions in advance, they can quickly enter a “conflict spiral” that increasingly escalates. In this state, “Every reaction is a reaction, and that’s what you’re seeing in our country currently,” he said.

Professional mediators learn techniques such as reframing, or “looping,” and depersonalizing. In reframing, you listen carefully to what the other person is saying, then summarize and repeat what you believe you heard. This can help to defuse a tense situation because the other person recognizes that you’re listening with respect and trying to understand his position, not preparing a retort while he speaks.

“It’s amazing to hear one side say something and it arrives completely different on the other side,” Diaz-Prinz said. “Summarize it and send it back by saying, ‘Did I understand correctly?’ Ninety percent of the time they will say, ‘No, that’s not my main point.”

To depersonalize, say only statements that begin with “I” — not with “you” since “you” statements are often accusatory and may not accurately represent what the other person believes.

Another strategy, DIaz-Prinz said, is “appreciative inquiry,” which can be summed up as “ask as much as you say.”

‘Don’t be the match’

Gary T. Klugiewicz worked for 25 years at a sheriff’s department in Milwaukee before retiring and co-founding Vistelar, a conflict-management institute that trains police officers, medical professionals and the military in de-escalation. In police work, Klugiewicz said, there’s a relevant adage: What’s the one fight you can’t lose? The one you don’t start.

That’s why much of his training centers on stopping conflict before it gets ugly. And the first way to do that is to act respectfully. That means being polite and listening, no matter how much you may dislike the other person’s words or behavior. “If we could bring down the level of disrespect, everyone would be safer,” Klugiewicz said.

Another strategy he teaches is to “respond, don’t react.” 

“A reaction is an untrained way of dealing with a situation,” he said. A response is thoughtful and can even be rehearsed. And the response may include another technique called redirection. Acknowledge what the other person is saying, and then redirect them to another topic that is less inflammatory.

Reacting is normal human behavior but shows “they’re an amateur,” he added. Peacemakers know that their words, tone and body language can escalate even small points of conflict into all-out war. “The initial contact is how it starts,” he said. “Don’t be the match that sets the gas on fire. So often we do that.”

Why we need aggression

“Without aggression we wouldn’t exist; we couldn’t defend ourselves and our families. Aggression is built in, and we get physical feedback to its benefit the moment we grow teeth, the moment we can push away another baby who wants the toy we want.” — Ellis Amdur, a crisis-intervention specialist in Seattle

Ellis Amdur, a crisis-intervention specialist in Seattle, holds degrees from Yale University and Seattle University, and this education helped him understand the roots of human aggression. 

While he doesn’t believe aggressive behavior is getting worse — we just see more of it because of phone cameras — tensions have always been exacerbated when people are exposed to “others” outside of their tribe, because for so long, strangers represented danger. Also, ancient tribes would split up when they got too large because there were only so many people one tribe could support. In short, beyond our own, comforting circle, we can get testy. “Consider when you’ve had house guests for too long. … We just get irritable with too many people taking too much of our time and our peace for too long. It seems to be built into us,” Amdur said.

That said, “Without aggression we wouldn’t exist; we couldn’t defend ourselves and our families,” he said. “Aggression is built in, and we get physical feedback to its benefit the moment we grow teeth, the moment we can push away another baby who wants the toy we want.”

As such, “If you’ve ever cared for a small child, you know a little bit about de-escalation,” he said.

Parents know instinctively that distraction is one way of stopping a child from melting down. This works on angry adults as well. “Change the subject to something positive the person likes, that they are about,” Amdur said.


Canyoneering in slot canyons on the outskirts of Zion National Park, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

“Angry people can make a lot of noise, but they are generally trying to communicate with you, even though it’s one way; they don’t care much for what you have to say.” This is why Amdur teaches clients that you can’t solve a problem with an angry person; you have to de-escalate first.

Diaz-Prinz, who lives in Washington D.C., recently traveled to Zion National Park, where he realized that he knew hardly anything about the citizens of Utah even though they share the same country. The divisions between Americans aren’t just political; they’re also geographical. Studies have shown that 1 in 10 Americans haven’t traveled outside their own state. “I have the feeling that a lot of Americans don’t really know each other,” Diaz-Prinz said.

Some people are trying to do something about that. For example, a program called Hands Across the Hills brought residents of Kentucky and Massachusetts together after the 2016 election, to try to get residents of red states and blue states to understand each other.


Dave and Carol Duncan, of Seneca, S.D., hold hands as they look up at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Diaz-Prinz, meanwhile, is trying to meet more of his fellow Americans on his own. The average American only travels to 10 or 12 states in their lifetimes, he said; he’s at 26 now with a goal to make it to all 50. “We’re all Americans, and all very divided, but when we stand in front of the (General) Sherman Tree, or in Zion National Park, we forget that,” he said.

As for the heightened conflict in Washington D.C. in recent weeks, Diaz-Prinz says the political arena has become unruly in part because there has been an erosion of “ground rules” to which both parties used to abide.

In international mediation, the first thing that mediators do is establish ground rules on discourse and civility. “They’re essential,” he said, and it’s up to political leaders to establish them.

Civility, a component of respect, is difficult for people who believe that being polite conveys weakness or capitulation. “But understanding the other side doesn’t mean that you agree with them.”

It does, however, “require us to accept people we don’t like,” he added. “And that’s at the crux of what divides us.”