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Escalation-Limiting Language
 
By
Jennifer Akin


September 2003
 


Additional insights into escalation limiting language are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

A wrong word or misconceived message during a conflict is like gasoline on a fire. Inflammatory language is one of the most common causes of conflict escalation. Avoiding the escalation of arguments requires awareness and self-control. An immense amount of embarrassment and pain could probably be avoided if everyone paused before speaking, heeding the advice to "think before we speak." However, in reality, people are not always calm, rational, or careful. We are emotional creatures and, despite better judgment, our style of communication reflects this. Learning certain principles and techniques of communication can counter this tendency: conflicts already charged with emotion can be kept from escalating and even be defused.

General Principles

Listening is the hero of good communication. Communication requires at least two parties: one to speak and one to listen; 'good' communication demands that both parties take turns speaking and listening. Many conflicts drag on because one side will not stop until they feel heard and understood -- sometimes that is all they want. Once they feel they have been understood, the conflict dissipates. At other times, a conflict arises because one side didn't hear what the other said, and replied inappropriately in word or action, or didn't respond at all. If one is going to do only one thing to avoid escalation, it should be to listen carefully and make sure the other party knows they are listened to.

Defining one's terms is helpful even when one is not in a state of conflict. In America, for example, it may anger people to be called "Oriental" instead of "Asian." The term "Oriental" recalls old prejudices and insults. In another example, what "reasonable spending" means to one spouse may mean something entirely different to the other. If this term is not clearly defined, conflict over whether an expensive purchase is "reasonable" or not is likely. It may seem awkward at first, but a useful first step in a disagreement is to determine each side's relationship to certain words or phrases. For example, what does a word mean to each person? Does it have negative connotations, and if so, why? Does one party have a strong emotional reaction to a particular word? Often, it is taken for granted that the meanings of words are concrete, but many words have slightly different meanings and varying levels of emotional impact to different people. For example, fundamental phrases such as security and respect need to be investigated. What would it take for one party to feel secure? For another to feel respected? One side may think they are according the other respect, when the latter still feels disrespected. If these differences are not uncovered early in an argument each side becomes convinced that the other side is not making sense or not listening or not caring, and any attempts to unravel or deescalate the conflict become increasingly frustrated

How a message is received, however, depends on much more than semantics. The spoken word is heavily influenced by expression, intonation, or body language. Intonation, or tone of voice, is critical. A single word can carry multiple meanings depending on intonation. Think how many ways one can reply to, "How are you?" with just the word "fine." Depending on one's tone of voice, "fine" can mean both "good" and "bad," as well as, "I'm angry," "Why are you asking?" "I'm tired," or "I'm busy," to name just a few possibilities. As Suzette Elgin says, "English is a language in which hostilities and abuse are carried primarily by the melodies that go with the words, rather than by the words themselves."[1]

Another important nonverbal communication channel is the stress pattern of a sentence. In English, most sentences have one heavy stress. Two or more heavy stresses in English nearly always indicate a hidden meaning.[2] Compare "What are you DOing?" with "WHAT are you DOing?" The listener might not be aware that they have heard an abnormal stress pattern, but they will be on alert as to the speaker's actual meaning.

Other nonverbal signals fall under the category of body language, and include expression, posture, and gestures. Slouching conveys a different message than standing upright; pointing at one's audience is different than scratching one's head. The challenge with all nonverbal behavior is to interpret it accurately. Often it is not possible for the "receiver" to know if a yawn signals boredom or lack of sleep. Therefore it is up to the "transmitter" to be aware of all of their communication and to clarify if necessary. Another potential problem is that body language varies by culture. For example in many Asian countries it is a sign of respect not to look someone in the eye, while in American culture that is taken to be a sign of dishonesty or disinterest.

Finally (and obviously), during any disagreement it is important to exercise common civility. For example, do not insult the other party; do not call them derogatory names or belittle their position; avoid exaggeration and sarcasm; be respectful of those you are dealing with and of their opinions. The harder these practices seem to be in a given situation, the more important they are. If either side has become too emotional to be civil then it is better to wait and continue the discussion when they have had time to calm down.

Specific Techniques

Besides these broad principles, there are a number of specific techniques that can be employed. One of the most often cited is the use of? "I-statements" in place of "you-statements." I-statements, also called "three-part messages" or "I-messages," are a way of communicating a problem to another person without accusing them of being the cause of the problem.[3] The formula for these messages takes this form: "I feel (emotion/s) when (circumstance/s)." One can also include the effect that the event has on you.[4],[5] For example, "I feel scared when you stay out late without calling because I'm worried you were in an accident." Speaking only from one's own perspective eliminates much of the reason for the other party to get defensive and also gives them space to acknowledge their own role in the conflict. For the message to be effective the feeling has to be an actual feeling and not what one thinks the other side did wrong. An I-message becomes a disguised you-message with the addition of the words "you," "that," or "like." For example, the statement "I feel like you have no regard for my feelings," is still blaming the other person for the situation, and they are likely to still react defensively.

Another technique is the use of disarming statements. A disarming statement is a conciliatory statement that one's opponent would never have believed possible. If the seriousness of the statement can be demonstrated, it may become possible to establish a de-escalating spiral in which two parties compete to prove that their peaceful intentions are as strong as the other's.[6] If two groups have been refusing to meet together, an example of a disarming statement would be for one side to invite the other to discussions.

Sometimes a small change of words can make a big difference in a statement's reception. In Getting Past No, Bill Ury points out that the word "but" highlights differences. It almost always precedes negative news, and has the effect of canceling out whatever came before it, as in, "You did a great job, but..." or negating what the other person has said, as in, "I agree with what you said, but..." Ury suggests substituting the word "and" for "but" as much as possible. For example, after listening to a student complaining about their grade, "Yes, it does sound like you did a lot of work for this paper, and the reason that I did not give you an A is...." "... [T]he key," Ury says, "is to present your views as an addition to, rather than a direct contradiction of, your opponent's point of view."[7]

An interesting technique taught by Suzette Elgin involves listening for and responding to cues of the speaker's preferred "sensory mode." The main sensory modes are sight, sound, and touch. This concept is based on the idea that most people learn more easily through a particular sense, such as sight or hearing. Some people, for example, prefer to read a textbook and study its diagrams, while others learn more from listening to a lecture. This preference is reflected in one's language through phrases such as, "I see what you mean," "I hear what you're saying," and "I'm getting a feel for it." Elgin believes that if one echoes the sensory mode of one's conversation partner he or she will be more at ease. Thus, if one is speaking with someone who uses sound references, such as, "How does it sound to you?" one should reply with hearing references. Likewise, if one was asked, "How does the situation look to you?" the best response would incorporate sight, such as, "I see it as a good opportunity," or "I'm still looking into it." If one cannot easily match the sensory mode being used, Elgin suggests not using sensory language at all. In that case, one could answer the question above with, "I think it's a good opportunity" or "I am still researching it." The most important thing to remember with this technique is never to use a sensory mode different from that of the other speaker. A troublesome response to the question above would be, "I feel it's a good opportunity," (touch) or "It sounds fine to me," (hearing) or "It stinks," (smell). While people no doubt differ in their sensitivity to sensory mode language, this technique is useful because if they are sensitive it can help let them know they are being heard and understood.


[1] Suzette H. Elgin, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000).

[2] Elgin, 112

[3] "'I' Statements Not 'You' Statements." [article on-line] (Boulder, Colorado: International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict, 1998, accessed 28 January 2003); available at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/istate.htm; Internet.

[4] Clayton Tucker-Ladd, 'I' Messages [book on-line] (Mental Health Net, accessed 30 January 2003); available from http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap13/chap13g.htm.

[5] Hope E. Morrow. Constructing I-Statements. (Hope Morrow's Trauma Central, 1998, accessed 30 January 2003); available at http://home.earthlink.net/~hopefull/i-statem.htm.

[6] De-escalatory Language (Boulder, Colorado: Internaitonal Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict, 1998); available at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/desclang.htm.

[7] William Ury, Getting Past No (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 51.


Use the following to cite this article:
Akin, Jennifer. "Escalation-Limiting Language." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/escalation-limiting-language>.

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