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The Power of Diffusing Rather Than Escalating a Tense Situation

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Katz Justice

We repeatedly face tense crossroads situations where we know that diffusing the situation is the right choice, but sometimes give into our temptations to escalate the tension. Diffusing the situation, or at least softening our own tension for starters, clearly is the most persuasive way to approach potentially tense situations.

Following are some factors that interfere with diffusing tense situations, and how to still diffuse them:

Factor: Wanting to save face when being publicly disrespected. Solutions towards diffusing the situation: Walking away. Calmly pointing out to the other person that you both will be well served if you work together to resolve your differences towards a solution, rather than hurling words and harshness towards each other. Awakening the other person to the reality of his or her ill-chosen words.

Factor: Not wanting to look bad in front of a client when spoken to disrespectfully by another person.

Solutions towards solving the problem: Alerting the client well in advance that ill-considered words can fly in the battlefield. If a lawyer, pointing out the lawyer’s ethics rules to prevent opposing counsel from talking about the case in front of the client other than such permitted circumstances as courtroom proceedings, depositions, mediations and arbitrations. With judges, consider asking to approach the judge and to point out the unnecessary wedge that a judge’s unnecessarily harsh words or tone can place between the lawyer and client in a way that slows down moving along the case (judges favor seeing cases move along).

Factor: Wanting to neutralize another’s potentially harmful or damaging behavior or words when progressively gentle to firmer approaches seem to fail. A classic example is being placed on perpetual hold be a series of telephone customer service representatives who make it hard for you to get a word in edgewise — sometimes mis-characterizing your words to their peers, only to be transferred repeatedly to the wrong next person. Who has not at some point in their lives felt the urge to yell at such customer service personnel after being on the phone for over thirty minutes?

Solutions towards diffusing the situation: Starting by considering whether simply hanging up will be more beneficial than feeling like you are struggling with the customer service people. Firmly but politely say early on: “Please do not hang up on me before passing me onto a next person or extension, before I say whether I am satisfied with the transfer.” Consider why you are being passed from extension to extension, including the extent to which the customer service person is dumbfounded about how to handle the situation, and the extent to which the person wants to get rid of you if you are giving off negative words and negative energy.

Here are some general diffusing techniques beyond those listed above:

  • Being unflappable like a tidal wave or hurricane in the face of of adversity, as if the tidal wave or hurricane were facing but a fly.
  • Riding on waves of high energy that invite the opponent to join.
  • Taking care of your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
  • Exercising mindfulness and meditative techniques to soften our reactions and provide a sense of beneficial space in terms of time, space and decision making.
  • Knowing that ultimately we and our opponents are all in this together, even if we must inflict damage on our opponents to harmonize the situation for ourselves and out clients.
  • Not attaching to the situation, and delighting in the prospects or happening of great performance and results.
  • Making minor adjustments to be in control, rather than exerting excessive energy that makes the fighter lose focus on the target.
  • Being a powerful bear in a potentially stressful court.
  • Never breaking proverbial contact with the opponent, to be in calm control and not to lose the battle.
  • Engaging the opponent to the point that s/he is intrigued or even entertained, which then diffuses the opponent’s tension and dangerous actions.
  • Being compassionate to yourself and even your seemingly worst enemy. In karate, we bow to our opponent in reverence to them and their abilities, while never losing eye contact in the event they start attacking before the bell rings.
  • Pursuing an ongoing practice of calmness/relaxation, losing the ego, pursuing a path of no self and no out there for the mind, and deep listening.
  • Working together with the client on teamwork for dealing with tense situations. For instance, a very sage client emailed me after tense combat between me and the prosecutor before the judge in a pretrial hearing when the stakes were high for my client: “I witnessed a lot of aggression in court today.” In so doing, he was politely asking me to consider whether that level of aggression on my part was necessary. It probably was in that instance where the prosecutor was trying to throw proverbial dirt in my eyes that could have damaged my client. (His case ultimately got permanently dismissed after the prosecutor was not ready for the subsequent trial date.) However, if I had been feeling calmer, the chances might have been better of slowing or stopping the dirt-throwing hand of the prosecutor or even reversing his dirt-throwing mind.

Most importantly- Have fun at all times, which is strengthening. All battlefields are potential playgrounds. Bugs Bunny, Calvin and Hobbes, and George and Harold, and Abbie Hoffman all know that.


  1. Nick Mugge on October 5, 2015 at 8:45 am

    Love the new website, Jon! Hope everything is going well.


  2. Jon Katz on October 6, 2015 at 6:22 am

    Thanks, Nick-

    Longtime Underdog readers will know that Nick was part of our team from 2011-2014, he graduated from University of Maryland last May.