7 Steps to Defuse Difficult Situations

Helping Emotional People Think Clearly

As a part of my work as a chaplain for the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department, I took a course in critical incident stress debriefing. While I did not look forward to this investment of time and did not expect to learn much, I found it very practical and quite helpful. One of the things they said was that in an immediate crisis, you would not do a complete debriefing, but you could do a defusing. I have found that, as a pastor, there are many times and circumstances that can benefit from “defusing.”

Recently, I visited a hospice facility where there was some tension between the families. The mother and father of the lady who was dying are members of our church. Her husband is not a member of our church and has a disease which leaves him in a wheelchair. The woman’s parents were unable to give her the care she needed, so they had placed her in hospice. The husband was angry, not wanting his wife to be in a strange place when she left earth and went into eternity. He had threatened to ask another church to do the funeral service and to not allow the woman’s parents to visit or have contact with their grandchildren. The Lord was gracious, and we left with everyone smiling and happy. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Speak Softly

  • The Bible commands it. “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”—Proverbs 15:1
  • It demonstrates that you are harmless. A person who speaks loudly may demonstrate leadership, but he also may be perceived as a threat.
  • It provides a significant contrast if others are speaking loudly. Often, in a difficult situation, the volume escalates as the discussion continues. I believe this is because, when someone disagrees with us, we think they must not have understood us. We therefore speak more loudly in order to be understood. By speaking softly, others will hear how loud their own comments are.

2. Honor All Sides Involved

Treat each faction and each individual with respect.

3. Listen

Let each party express their concerns and tell their side of the story. We once had a difficulty in one of our ministries that was causing intense feelings on the part of individuals who had different viewpoints. I left a message for one of the individuals involved to call me. When they did so, I said, “Let me hear your side of the story.” Their first response was, “Thank you.” Rightly or wrongly, they felt like they did not have an opportunity to express their viewpoint. After I had listened, they were much calmer and much more receptive to what I had to say.

4. Seek Common Ground

In most situations, there is some area of agreement. Recently, I spoke to people who had differing opinions about what should be done with a segment of our bus ministry. I said, “Well, let’s remember that we all have the same goal. All of us want the bus ministry to succeed, all of us want us to reach more children and see them saved and going on to live for the Lord Jesus.”

The point I wished to make was that while we may have differed on the best way to achieve the goal, our goals were identical. Perhaps a statement like, “Well it’s obvious to me that everyone here is very concerned about so-and-so” or “Boy, it sure seems apparent that each person involved in this dispute has so-and-so’s best interests at heart.”

 5. Ask Questions

  • Ask questions to understand. Too often, we are so eager to speak and give our side that we understand less about a particular situation than we think we do. In some instances, we do understand, but those involved don’t know that we understand.
  • Asking questions demonstrates respect and honors the person. Instead of “telling people what to do,” we ask their opinion and thereby let them know that we think they have something valuable to say.
  • Asking questions is helpful because it puts people “on the record.” I often tell our soulwinners and those involved in counseling, “People will often disagree with what you tell them, but they can never disagree with what they tell you.” Once someone has said something in answer to a question, it will be difficult for them to take a different position.
  • Questions can redirect attention. Sometimes when a person is very upset, I will ask them questions that are connected with, but not particularly relevant to the issue at hand.

For example, someone might say, “Well, they’ve just got it in for my children.” I might ask, “How many children do you have? How old are they? Where are they in school?” In answering these questions, the person is forced to focus on something other than that which upsets them.

6. Use Humor When Appropriate

If the Lord can help you think of something that makes the group laugh, it will go a long way towards healing the rift. When we laugh with other people, we connect with them.

7. Ask, “How can I help?” or “What would you like me to do?”

Many times people just need to know you are there to help them.

Conclusion: I’ll never forget doing a funeral where warring factions nearly came to blows at the graveside. The Lord helped me to take different groups aside, listen to them, and get them to tell me their story. We were ultimately able to get in our cars and go home without an incident.

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