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De-Escalation Tactics: Conflict Resolution Via Communication

Conflict resolution techniques are best utilized before the aggressor becomes violent. Often, when employed early enough, verbal de-escalation tactics can help calm the situation before it escalates into a physical confrontation. But there is finesse involved in successful de-escalation, and we spoke with Ellis Amdur about this unique art.

The Art of De-escalation Tactics

It was a not-so-typical home visit for Ellis Amdur.

Working in the crisis intervention unit of a mental health care agency, Amdur was looking into a possible missing person. What made this particular welfare check dicey, though, was the problematic history of the missing woman’s son. In his previous interaction with authorities, the son had bitten the nose off a police officer.

Amdur arrived at their home with two uniformed officers. However, the officers stayed on either side of the front door, allowing Amdur to take the lead. When the door opened, he was confronted by a Neanderthal-like individual bearing his teeth.

The Moon in the Water

At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Amdur is capable of taking care of himself. He spent more than a decade in Japan studying martial arts like judo and muay thai. But his main focus was koryu, the classical martial arts of the samurai. He’s one of the few Westerners to achieve certificates of mastery in two separate koryu arts.

The sophisticated strategic teachings of those arts, along with degrees in psychology, have informed Amdur’s work in crisis intervention. He’s trained law enforcement agencies, correction departments, and civilians in how to peacefully de-escalate potentially violent situations.

Ellis Amdur lecturing on topics such as de-escalation tactics.

In the case of the teeth-baring son, Amdur made use of an ancient mindset strategy he’d studied.

“I could see the man was a mix of fear and rage. He hadn’t expected anyone to knock on his door,” said Amdur. “There’s a famous phrase in several classical Japanese arts: ‘The moon reflected in the water does not know it’s a reflection, nor does the moon in the sky.’ The idea is that with proper training, you’ll instantaneously be aware of the right thing to do without thinking about it.”

Before the man could speak or act, Amdur instinctively made a slight bowing motion with his head. It wasn’t submissive, merely a form of politeness to put the other individual at ease. But he didn’t give the man a chance to act. Instead, Amdur immediately stated he had two questions, would leave after they were answered, and wouldn’t bother the man again.

“I didn’t ask permission. I took the initiative and gave him an avenue to escape – by answering my questions,” said Amdur.

The man complied. The mother was alive and well, visiting her sister, and the situation ended peacefully. It was a perfect example of successful de-escalation tactics.

Recognize, Identify, Manage

In the self-defense world, much is made about the importance of being able to de-escalate conflicts before they turn violent. But rarely does that recommendation come with concrete advice on just how you’re supposed to do this.

Amdur said the basics of conflict de-escalation start with a three-step process: recognize, identify, and manage. The most basic of these, “recognize,” starts with simply being aware enough to recognize a problem may be developing.

As with any other skill, this requires practice. Simply observing the people around you and seeing how they act when they become agitated or aggressive is useful training.

The second step is to “identify” the specific problem. When dealing with potentially violent situations, you’re typically dealing with some level of aggression. Amdur lists four stages of human interaction and uses a 1-100 scale to better identify aggression.

The first level—say from 1 to 20—is the normal, calm state in which people usually function. People in this stage are able to communicate through rational dialogue. If there’s a disagreement, they’re able to take personal responsibility. When one person disregards what’s said, the other might simply reply, “Maybe I didn’t make my point clearly…”

Managing Angry People

The second level—say from 21 to 95—is when people start to become angry. This is when the last part of that three-step process, “management,” comes into play. Managing angry people requires a different form of communication than what’s used when people are in a calm state. When someone becomes angry, what Amdur calls the “mammalian brain” is activated.

“We’re pack animals. And when there’s a problem among pack animals, it goes to a dominance hierarchy,” he said. “When you’re angry and have a problem with someone, you feel they’re threatening your position in the hierarchy. So, compromise becomes an impossible concept.”

Until you can calm an angry person, you can’t solve whatever problem exists. Amdur believes the most useful tool for doing this is what he refers to as “tactical paraphrasing.”

When an angry person is telling you something, even if you disagree, sum up what they’re saying and verbalize it. You don’t just want to repeat what they’re saying. You want to let them know you understood it.

Such tactical paraphrasing doesn’t need to validate what the person said as long as you show you got their message.

For example, if someone’s angrily criticizing your political candidate, you might say, “Boy, you really hate that guy.”

This shows you understood the person’s message. But it doesn’t necessarily agree with or challenge that message.

When Anger Turns to Rage

Amdur categorizes the third stage of interaction as going from 96 to 99, which he defines as “rage.”

The difference between anger and rage is that the angry person is still trying to communicate, no matter how poorly. But a person in a rage is simply using words to intimidate you or amp himself up for a fight. A person in a state of rage is on the edge of violence, and you have to take control. You’re not asking them to do things at this point. You’re telling them.

But there are different forms of rage. These include terrified rage, hot rage, berserk rage, and predatory rage. What you say to the person confronting you might be similar regardless of the type of rage. But the manner in which you deliver it will vary depending on what you’re dealing with.

People in a terrified rage are responding out of fear. Any command you give them should offer some reassurance, such as saying “Calm down” in a calm voice.

People in a hot rage are like a bear looking for a fight. With them, any command you give should be simple and emphatic, like “Step back!”

A person in a berserk rage might be on drugs or having a psychotic episode. You need to make things more coherent, perhaps just telling them, “Sit down.”

Dealing with Predators

Though each state of rage can prove dangerous, predatory rage is what concerns many people in matters of self-defense. A person in a predatory state is still maintaining his cognitive functions as he moves against you.

Amdur said if hot rage is like a bear, predatory rage is more like a lion or shark hunting you. Typically, such human predators will seek to get to your corner rather than confront you head-on. Or they may look away, even as they move aggressively toward you, so they don’t appear as hostile.

The best way to deal with predatory rage is to possess overwhelming force and professionalism.

“A mountain lion is not going after a buffalo by itself,” said Amdur.

But sometimes, you won’t be in possession of overwhelming force. In those cases, Amdur suggests what he calls a “cryptic comment.”

This isn’t a direct threat, which might make the other person feel disrespected and force them into violence. Rather, it’s an oblique comment that leaves what you really mean to the other person’s imagination.

Telling a threatening individual, “It’s a beautiful night,” and giving a sly smile may be enough to make them stop and think about what you’re really saying.

Of course, none of these methods are guaranteed to succeed. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable that things reach the fourth stage—at level 100—where the situation turns violent.

“That’s why we train in martial arts or carry weapons, for when things don’t work,” said Amdur. “No verbal tactic should make you less prepared for that.”

To learn more about Ellis Amdur and de-escalation tactics, visit

Likewise, for more thoughts from Amdur, listen to the podcast interview with author Mark Jacobs.

Ellis Amdur demonstrates a staff vs. sword technique from classical Japanese martial arts.

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