Posted by on July 26, 2019

Last summer (2018), I was exiting a train at the Bloor/Yonge subway station. It was crowded and as I walked toward the stairs I accidentally bump into a man. I turned to apologize and saw him squinting at me with hands by his sides, fists clenched. I put my hands up, explaining that my bump was accidental.
“Idiot!” He said, then walked away.
It occurred to me say something (we all have egos after all) but I refrained. It was, I realized later, a good decision.

What you say (or don’t say) can have a significant, even life-changing, impact on how a potential conflict plays out. To be clear, there are instances when “using your words” will be utterly futile. If an assailant is striking you, pulling you into a vehicle, they are beyond reason. In these cases, the solution is physical – fight to protect yourself. If that man on the subway platform started punching and kicking me as I babble apologies I will accomplish nothing save facilitating my knockout.

This being said, there are many instances where choosing the right words, accompanied by an appropriate tone and body language can de-escalate a situation and prevent it from getting into the physical. Every situation is unique but here are some general guidelines.

  1. Acknowledge A Mistake. Cutting off a driver, bumping into someone on a sidewalk or subway platform… Admit you made a mistake. I apologized for my accidental bump. Yes, his response was less than gracious but it beats pummelling each other in front of a crowd. No thanks.
  2. Avoid Embarrassing Comments and Insults. Insulting someone’s appearance, manner of speaking, fashion choices, etc… can quickly escalate a situation. This is especially true in public places. Be firm about boundaries. Be assertive. Don’t humiliate.
  3. Don’t Be Seduced by Righteousness. I didn’t intend to bump into that chap on the subway so by rights I should not have had to apologize. Blah, blah, blah. I would rather apologize than end up on a Youtube video titled “Subway fisticuffs”.
  4. Be Mindful of Your Body Language. Hands up and open, calm voice. Clenched fists or displays of contempt like eye-rolling, waving someone way, or the infamous “finger” won’t help de-escalate.

In my experience, many situations can be avoided or prevented. When possible use vocal and body language to de-escalate a potentially violent confrontation.

Image by hermelin from Pixabay


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