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DE-ESCALATION: A Quick ‘n’ Dirty Guide!

October 2, 2011

People who know me know that I’m happy-go-lucky (or, as I prefer to say, sanguine). Some, but not all, know that I’m thin-skinned. Very much so. I infrequently get mad directly at people, but situations and circumstances can upset me so much that I wind up taking things out verbally on those responsible. It’s perhaps my most egregious character flaw.  But today my Jekyll triumphed over my Hyde, and I’m as proud as the cat that ate the canary.  Here’s the situation and what I did about it, offered as an object lesson.

In Grey and Bruce, you have the choice of numerous bus services for inter-community travel, so long as they consist solely of the Airbus. Their service is generally not thoroughly horrendous, but they have been known to leave a person hanging. Buses leaving early, arriving late, running on a minimal schedule. Typical bus company glitches. But given that they’re the only show in town, you are fully at their mercy and it is a known fact that they do not treat complaints seriously.

I therefore expect a little inefficiency – after all, if you set your sights low enough, you can’t be disappointed – but after the driver who was to take me to Southampton showed up a good fifteen minutes behind schedule on a disgustingly cold, drizzly day, guaranteeing that I would miss my appointment window and arrive drenched to boot (cue violins), I felt it intolerable that he should smugly get away with being, in the immortal words of comedian Mike Macdonald, “more late.”

When he asked me nonchalantly how I was, I pissily snapped, “Late.” And so we get to the meat in our little mindfulness burger. Here are a few principles and tips for dealing with interpersonal unpleasantness, from start to finish.

1) Don’t Create a Douchebag

The best way to avoid a confrontation is not to confront.

With my snippyness I started a chain of bitchy argumentation that resulted in sarcasm all round and passive aggression, as he “accidentally” dropped my ticket in front of me and took additional time leaving the station. Even after my repeated “Whatevers,” “Moving ons,” and “It’s all good, bros,” he persisted in being a jerk. Thus, if you know yourself to be impatient and susceptible to provocation, do your damndest to prune the bloody branch before there’s even a bud to be nipped. Because once the shit starts, you can back down, but you can’t back out!

2) Don’t Give Him the Power

He ain’t the boss of you.

My circumstances put me at a disadvantage – I was in a bus driven by a guy who could permit himself to be a turkey because he knew he could act with impunity. It’s a common frustration, feeling powerless before someone with no consequences to worry about. As a result, you have to recognize that so long as he can piss you off, he will. You may benefit from Oscar Wilde’s wit in Chuck Norris’s body (preferably not the reverse), yet you will not shut him down. He will retain the upper hand so long as your goat is got and you respond. You are, in effect, fueling things by giving him power over you.

3) Assume Control

Take him out – of the equation, that is.

It’s not enough to quit rising to the bait or to hold your tongue. In fact, even trying to ignore him is insufficient. These are a good start, but they’re just one bite of the enchilada.

Trying to merely “ignore” someone is nigh impossible, anyway. No matter how you try to tune him out, he can still work you over from the periphery. He’s there at the back of your mind, and too much of your attention remains engaged in the deliberate act of ignoring him. Ironic, wot? You are not in control. You are still unwittingly responding to his advances by mentally putting out the fire that is his mere presence in your personal space. He remains on the offensive, harshin’ your mellow.

To address this, you don’t want him to simply encounter Gandhi-esque passive resistance. You want him to shadow-box a non-existent opponenent. For that, you need control.

And for that, you need to stop him. Dead.

You need to detach yourself from the whole situation. Let him blather and exude douchiness. If your head is in a hammock hung between two palm trees, sippin’ a drink from a hollowed-out coconut, he is decidedly not in control. He is no longer even an annoyance, because his douchitude no longer exists in your world. But, I repeat, I don’t mean try to ignore him. Quite the opposite. Be fully aware of him instead – but simply as just another value-neutral object in your field of perception. If he acts like a metaphorical tool, he can be looked upon as a literal tool: one of the many artefacts which simply litter your environment, like the pen on your desk or the hammer in your shop.

And for that, you must not only divert your attention away from him, but turn both mind and body toward a task that will keep you fully occupied as it relieves the tension. It’s a multi-level process.

3.1) Nurse, Ratchet: Physical Regulation

And how do we achieve detachment? It begins with physical regulation, and trust me, I know whereof I speak. A digression. Ages ago, a psychologist at the Royal Ottawa Hospital ascertained that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was most congruent with my near constant state of adreno-cortical overload and engagement of the fight-or-flight response. Being an insecure nervous wreck, in other words, is almost my default state. The Bipolar doesn’t help. Hypomania robs me of my last reserves of patience, especially patience with myself. I’ve had meltdowns over the confection of egg salad. Word. So, for a guy who jokes that he has a fair amount of blood in his adrenaline system, finding ways to endure his own body is rather important. I have to work on techniques to ratchet things down, else I go the Form 1 route – involuntary psych ward admission.

Physical regulation, for me, has two aspects: the overall/long-term, and the immediate. The long term method consists in using exercise to burn off excess energy and to lower my resting heart rate and blood pressure. But what concerns us here are the immediate things: what we can do when we want to go Cyclops on some twat who’s tripping the light on our last nerve.

Though it may take some practice, there is only one immediate stress-reduction technique that is guaranteed to work. Call it chi, call it prana, or call it simple biology – you can consciously moderate your stress response. Here’s how.

A) The first part involves body awareness, which involves realizing that you are unconsciously clenching your fists and jaw, are tightening the muscles in your neck, are breathing rapidly and shallowly, are sweating, are jumpy, etc. These are the effects of the sympathetic nervous system and they’re automatic. In fact, when this part of the nervous system kicks in, you’re on autopilot. Rational thought goes out the window and you’re reacting reflexively to stimuli. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s designed to save your life. Your body is primed to respond to a threat, either by getting out of Dodge or O.K. Corral’ing the opposition. Anger and fear, aggression and panic. These are normal.

Normal though they be, they’re inappropriate responses to the snotters you meet in day-to-day life. Evidently, if you need to call upon self-defence training for whatever reason, it is good to have a few quick and powerful techniques which require no thought for their execution and which rely for their success on utterly instinctive reaction. But we want to become kung fu sifus, who are in control of the situation because they are in control of themselves. The martial arts master strives to maintain a clear head because this means he will have a relaxed body. One of the things that makes elite athletes great is that they can work with and around their sympathetic nervous systems. They maintain a level of stimulation sufficient to keep them competitive and in the moment, all the while keeping cool enough to maintain a clear mind and supple limbs.


Divert your attention away from Cornholio and upon yourself.

Sit with your spine straight but not stiff, chin slightly down.

Shut your eyes. Put your hands in a comfy position, such as in your lap or with palms down on your knees.

Now, consider each of your joints and muscles, and one at a time let them go loose and lanky – but not limp!

Maintain a presence in your 2000 parts as you work your way up your whole self from your shrimps to the top of your bean. Yes. Toes, soles and insteps, shins and calves, knees … right up to the jaw and facial muscles.

Feel each part of you relax and go limber.

B) The next part involves breath awareness, for this is how you actually take control of your sympathetic nervous system. As your heart slows, signals are sent throughout your nervous system to quit pumping out that neurotransmitting jitter juice. Your heart may be an involuntary muscle, but its rate is controlled by your breathing, and that’s an activity controlled by a voluntary muscle: your diaphragm.


While in the position described above, take deep, slow, even breaths.

Hold for a 1-2 count, release.

Try not to engage your thoracic muscles (ribcage), as this means you’re breathing too deeply and risk hyperventilating – exactly what we don’t want.

Just feel your diaphragm slowly and lovingly draw down.

Repeat until composure returns.

With practice, you can do A) and B) simultaneously.

Remember: Stress takes a lot out of a body. Ease yourself up by easing up on yourself.

3.2) It’s Not You, It’s Me: Emotional Regulation

Now that you have eased your heart rate down from meerkat to sperm whale, you can deal with your thoughts and with what you feel. For this, you need emotional awareness. You need to focus on – stop and think for a moment about – what is going on in your mind. To do this, you need to strip each event and feeling down, and consider its true context. Thus:

Am I angry at the whole situation?

That’s natural. But the initial provocation is over. I’ve been on the bus for 10 minutes. I’m clearly just ruminating. Let it go, sparky. No point in being upset at the cosmos.

Is my anger directed at the driver?

That’s natural. He’s being a jerk. But seriously, what’s that to me? I don’t have to live with him!

Am I anxious about coming off badly in front of the other passengers?

Touché! Oh, and also natural. For I too look like a dick in this situation. But frankly, that’s just wounded pride. I don’t know these people from Adam, Eve or Lilith. So who the hell cares?

Etc., until there’s nothing left of the situation but processed data devoid of emotional weight. It’s not an automatic (let alone easy) thing to do, this self-analysis. We have a tendency to direct our attention either aggressively outward or aggressively inward: bitching about others, or castigating ourselves. So call upon your inner Vulcan. And note how he acknowledges and respects your emotions as natural. Spock may be logical, but he is not judgemental about your Romulan side.

4) To Conclude

Only The End Of The World is the end of the world.

In conclusion, recognize that even if somebody ploughs his car into your kitchen, knocks out your gas range and causes an explosion which blasts to smithereens your prized collection of Royal Doulton commemorative Queen Mother plates – that, too, shall pass. Unless, of course, you choose to dwell on it. And you won’t do that, will you? Because that would be a douchy thing to do. And you’re not a douche.

Coda: Even Douches Snap Out of It

As I stepped off the bus in Southampton, the driver turned to me sheepishly and actually apologized.

It was legit.

Walking ‘tudes don’t usually apologize unless they mean it.

For the win.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. catherine333 permalink
    October 3, 2011 7:46 am

    Awesome! Your best post yet! Loved it :)

  2. Rousette permalink
    February 7, 2012 3:20 pm

    This was amazing. Thank you for writing it!!

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