We’ve all seen an action movie where a bomb is set to go off in seconds. Our hero frantically wipes away sweats as he or she attempts to disarm it before everything is blown into oblivion. Hands shaking while holding a pair of wire cutters, we watch them look at the big dilemma: which wire leads to victory and which one leads to destruction. Ah, the tension!
I’ve never been around a live bomb. I’m not trying to be either. But, I have been in explosive situations involving potentially destructive conversations with difficult people. The consequences were less dire – nothing has come to life or death, and no buildings were at risk. But, the stakes were still high with big ramifications. Either the situation would be diffused… or people could leave very hurt, and things could get incredibly hostile.
Have you ever known a disarmer — someone with the rare ability to walk into a potentially volatile situation and bring calm, coolness, rationality, and resolve? These people are a rarity. They are a species on the verge of extinction in today’s cultural climate. While they’re hard to find, we can’t have too many of them.
The Rare Skill of Disarming
We can’t control difficult people. But, we can be a disarming person. It is possible to defuse tension in the most explosive of situations. I’ve had the chance to learn from a few disarmers and watch them work in the tense, wire-cutting types of conversations. Here’s what I know about them: they are intentional people with a particular mindset. They don’t accidentally disarm situations or defuse difficult people. Here’s what they do.
If they know a potentially explosive situation is a possibility, disarmers have a plan. They don’t walk into tough conversations cold. Some of the best ones I know write out their thoughts on paper prior to the meeting. They want to choose words carefully. In some circumstances, disarmers will open up a difficult conversation by reading what they wrote down, not to be cold but rather to make sure the stage is set properly.
Disarmers don’t want the other people in the conversation to be caught by surprise. When people are caught off guard, most get defensive. Disarmers prep people by using statements like, “Can I ask you a difficult question?” Or, “I have something sensitive to talk to you about. Is now a good time or can we set up a time?”
Disarmers work really hard at trying to think the best about others. Admittedly, the more difficult the person, the more work this takes. Disarmers put themselves in the shoes of the disgruntled person. They try to understand what they might be feeling. And, they attempt to assume that a person has good intentions, even if the outcomes haven’t been great. Now, it’s important to know that this isn’t always the case. Sometimes people do want to inflict harm or cause damage. But, disarmers don’t immediately assume this is the motivation of the other person.
Reflect Before Respond
One of the habits described in Stephen Covey’s classic book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is seeking first to understand, then to be understood. Disarmers have great listening skills. They work to understand what the other person is experiencing. They often try to reflect back what they heard by articulating that person’s feelings in their own words. They use this phrase often: “What I heard you say was…” Then, and only then, do they share their perspective and feedback.
Say Sorry When Needed
Saying “I’m sorry” can be the difference between a complete meltdown and a helpful conversation. When dealing with a difficult person, it can be challenging to say sorry. However, disarmers know that saying, “I’m sorry,” doesn’t let the other person off the hook; disarmers understand that owning mistakes big and small can help someone else own their mistakes too. It’s human nature. If someone attacks and never concedes, the natural reaction is to do the same. Disarmers break the cycle by looking to apologize.
Choose the Right Time
In the movies, bomb detonation scenes always have a ticking clock. The bomb squad doesn’t have the luxury to choose the time and place to address the bomb. However, for most of us, our situations don’t have a ticking clock. Disarmers recognize when it’s time to have difficult conversations and when tensions are simply too high. They call time-outs and schedule another time down the road when emotions are less heated, and perspectives can be clearer.
Let’s face it: most of us will never be in an action movie with Bruce Willis. We won’t have to choose which wire to cut or have the fate of the world in our hands. But, we will face the opportunity to either escalate a volatile situation or diffuse it with our words and actions. So let’s develop our skills as disarmers. Maybe the fate of the world is more in our hands than we think.