No, I am not going to suggest that you break a person’s arm to win an argument as satisfying as that might seem. Remember that jujutsu is the art of yielding. The majority of self defense instructors (the ones with working brains) will tell you to avoid fighting, physical self defense is always the last resort. Very few that I’m aware of share practical techniques for de-escalation, so I am going to help you out with some tactics I’ve used which have worked in verbal confrontations.

A little background is in order. Before I completed my first masters degree I was actually working on a masters in conflict resolution. I didn’t complete that, but I did intern in small claims court helping to settle quite a few cases (more on this in a minute). I studied primarily mediation and negotiation, as well as organizational psychology.

One of the interesting things I found in small claims court is that generally – the lower the amount of money people were arguing over, the more contentious the argument and the more people dug into their position. I would hear over and over again, “it’s the principal of the thing,” or something to the effect of, “I know I’m right and the other party is wrong”. People would miss an entire day’s work to argue over $65, a considerable net loss for some. Cases involving $1000 or more sometimes settled in minutes.

Why? Well, my working theory is that, for most people, larger sums of money are the ends – the goal is first to recover a financial loss. People who are willing to lose money to go to court (lost time, wages, and filing fees) are there to defend their very identity. Many people have a very rigid set of beliefs which includes ideas about right or wrong. Getting them to budge from their position can be a herculean task. Holding a belief which is contrary to a person with rigid beliefs is seen (at least unconsciously) as an attack on their identity – you are questioning who they have come to believe they are.

So how does this relate to verbal confrontation?

When people are angry, it is primarily because they feel threatened in some way. This may not be a physical threat, but may be a threat to their precious belief  system. Remember, their sense of who they are as a separate human being (their ego) is very wrapped up in “the truth”. Questioning someone’s religious or political beliefs is a good way to experience this.

What people are looking for when they argue is validation. Arguments outside of academic debate are rarely about actual facts, even though that might be the content of the argument. Issues of identity and ego have to be cleared before substantive progress can be made.

Keeping these ideas in mind here are a few ideas to help you counter verbal confrontation:

  1. Do not argue in the first place. It takes two people to argue, people arguing with themselves seem pretty silly and most people won’t gain the satisfaction they are looking for. Excuse yourself from the argument – “This is something that’s getting us pretty mad, I’m going to go ahead and stop this conversation and we can pick it up later when emotions calm down a  little.”
  2. Avoid an accusatory tone. People who are angry probably believe they have a right to be angry. Things only escalate when you try to tell them they have no right to feel the way they do. Instead of, “what are you so pissed off about?” try, “I know your mad, and I would be too in your shoes.”
  3. Do NOT invalidate the other person’s beliefs. Remember – this is why they are mad in the first place. I once was accosted by a very well known martial arts instructor at a seminar who threatened to sue me for stealing his intellectual property (I didn’t). I listened very carefully to why he was angry and said something to the effect of, “I can see exactly why you think that way, and I don’t disagree with anything you just said – instead of making excuses, let me try to explain why I think there’s a misunderstanding.” It deflated the whole situation and we parted as friends.
  4. Listen. It’s really simple, but just listen to the person rather than starting to shout back. Don’t stare them down, or make threatening body postures, just shut up and let them talk. Many people will start off angry and just wind themselves down. I have used this Jedi mind trick many many times. In college I had a project partner come up to me once and say, “I am really really mad at you.” I just sat down, shut up, and let her talk while I listened. She got calmer and calmer and when she was done, she apologized to me. I had said absolutely nothing.
  5. Have personal de-escalation catchphrase to deal with personal attacks. I have been using this for years, and it’s also been written about in book called Verbal Judo. An upset relative once called me at 2AM spouting all kinds of insults and names at me for some perceived injustice. Each time she called me a name or directly insulted me, I just stayed calm and repeated my well-practiced catchphrase, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This encompasses many of the other skills – I didn’t argue, didn’t invalidate what she was saying, didn’t take on an accusatory tone, and I listened. This de-escalated things very fast. To this day, I cannot come up with a single option that would have made things turn out better.
  6. Practice non-violent but safe body postures. It is important when someone begins a verbal confrontation that you remain as calm as possible, when you lose your temper, you have lost. If you clench your fists, yell, or take on threatening body movements – the other person may perceive that as a threat or as an escalation to physical violence. Many self-defense systems practice what are called non-violent postures. These are defensive postures which are not viewed as threatening, but offer safety should the other person escalate anyway.
  7. Watch out for indications that things may turn violent. No tactic is 100% sure, so your attempts at de-escalation may fail. I had an incident on a subway a few years back with an intoxicated gentleman who wanted to fight with me. Despite my attempts to de-escalate, he was determined. I used a little trickery and got off the train without having to put my hand on the drunk, filthy, smelly guy who chose me at random to pick a fight. Here is an article I wrote on pre-violence indicators.

To gain and keep the upper hand in a verbal confrontation it is important to keep above the fray. Keep cool despite what is being said. Remember that you are not very likely to convince a pissed-off person that they are wrong, even if they are. You are unlikely to change a person’s beliefs in an argument – don’t fight the battle you are destined to lose. Using some of the tactics above you can yield, redirect, and come out on top.

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