Now that we’re all starting to leave our houses a bit more, we’re going to encounter a reality that might feel a little new again: other people.
And, in Philly’s characteristically cantankerous style, that can lead to conflicts. Conflicts over masks, over personal space, and over any of the other million things that someone could get upset about.
“People are stressed,” says Tracy Hornig, an independent communications and conflict specialist who often works with Media’s Center for Resolutions. “There’s a lot going on. They go out in public and something happens, and they blow. It’s going to happen.”
But if you encounter a coronavirus freak-out in public — or feel the need to confront someone yourself — don’t worry. There are some things you can do to de-escalate the situation before it gets out of hand, thanks to the advice of some local mediators and conflict-resolution experts. Here is what you need to know:
Say you’re out at the grocery store, and a fellow shopper blows up at you over a perceived slight — maybe you didn’t keep the full six feet away as recommended. What’s important to keep the situation from escalating, Hornig says, is to not take it personally — especially because it often isn’t.
“When we take it personally, it becomes a much bigger problem,” she says. “In most cases, it’s not personal. It is being directed at you, but the person attacking has a whole world you are not seeing.”
It is useful, she adds, to think about the situation like an iceberg — the tip of which is the problem that you see. The larger problems, however, are below the surface, and are often made up of issues that aren’t related to what seems like the problem in the moment. Those larger issues can sometimes make people feel vulnerable or powerless, which results outwardly in anger.
“Have a little empathy for people,” she says. “Be aware that they are human, and let’s meet them where they are at and see if we can help de-escalate before it gets out of control.”
Another step in helping to de-escalate a conflict, says Sue Wasserkrug, program administrator of the Good Shepherd Mediation Program, is to really try to understand where the other person is coming from. Letting that person know that you hear their concerns — even if you don’t agree with them — is huge.
“That way, the person feels like you are listening, and you are taking them seriously,” which can help keep the situation from getting worse, Wasserkrug says. “Think about what they are trying to communicate to you, and make sure you understand what they are concerned about.”
If you are comfortable having a conversation, Wasserkrug adds, your tone of voice is always important. Being calm and asking questions to clarify that person’s concerns can be helpful, and don’t assume that your perspective is the only perspective.
Don’t try to explain your way out of the dispute. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is that when they’re faced with a situation where somebody has become escalated, they try to resolve it by explaining why they did what they did,” Hornig says. “What it does is it can escalate the problem even further.”
With quick, public confrontations, says Randy Duque, deputy director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations’ Community Relations Division, it’s all about self-control and self-awareness. Don’t go into a situation trying to change a person’s behavior, or try to be right — instead, just try to keep things from getting out of hand.
“You can really only control your own actions and behaviors,” he says. “You can’t control someone else, especially a stranger. It’s hard to get in there and convince someone that you’re right and the other person is wrong. That’s not really the intention.”
During these types of interactions, he says, people are flooded with emotion, and it is difficult to have a logical discussion. With that in mind, it may be better to accommodate the other person, just in the interest of reducing tension and defusing the situation quickly.
“Stop and think, and then act — not react,” he says.
Hornig is a proponent of psychology professor Albert Mehrabian’s “7-38-55” rule, which states that when it comes to communication, 7% of the interaction is spoken words, 38% is voice and tone, and 55% is body language.
“Body language is a big piece of it,” Hornig says. “How you respond can really determine whether that individual is going to get amped up, or whether they’re going to kind of calm down and get to a place where you can have a reasonable conversation.”
Generally, you will want to make sure you are making eye contact, but not holding it directly so as not to seem intimidating. Keep a neutral facial expression, and your hands in front of you. Being at the same eye level can also help, as can standing at an angle to the other person rather than facing off. Overall, Hornig says, just try to appear open and relaxed.
It is important to keep some distance, which shouldn’t be an issue given the six-foot rule. But when dealing with a stranger in a public space, Hornig says, it’s better to keep about 12 feet away — a distance you should maintain so as to give the person some space and decrease stress. If it is someone you know, that number changes to a range of four to 12 feet.
While it may not be ideal to always avoid confrontations, Duque says, it is important to consider whether you can go about your day without letting another person’s behavior impact you. In the end, it might not be worth it to stick around to even have a conversation — especially if the situation is particularly strained.
“In the grocery store or park, the first question is, ‘Is this really worth it?’ ” he says. “You can acknowledge what’s going on and walk away gracefully.”
Walking away gracefully, Duque adds, means you leave the situation respectfully. Don’t make it seem like you are dismissing a person, or leave with a snide remark. It would be better to instead acknowledge the tension of the situation, and leave the conversation there.
Walking away may also be best in the interest of safety, says psychologist and owner of Philly Psychology Valerie Braunstein.
“It is best to limit your interaction if someone is coming at you,” she says. “You could just be gentle and nod, but then you are moving on, turning toward who you are with, or walking away and going to a more public area where it is safer.”
Should you feel the need to approach another person in public — say, for not wearing a mask — Hornig says that it is best to do so using what is called an “I” statement. Duque, meanwhile, refers to this technique as “speaking from your own perspective.”
“You are taking responsibility for what’s happening instead of putting the blame on someone else,” Hornig says. “If you say, ‘I just want to let you know that it’s upsetting to me when I see people sitting in a group of more than 10,' you may get a different response.”
The opposite of an “I” statement, Hornig adds, would be something like “You guys are breaking social distancing and you’re jerks.” Keep the focus on you, and express your concerns with respect.
Then, of course, you’ll need to be prepared to let the other person respond. Ultimately, the idea is to understand what each other’s needs are, Hornig says, and that is easier by maintaining a sense of balance during the interaction.
And you may not want to get involved in a conversation at all if you yourself are coming from a heightened emotional state, Duque adds.