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Defusing Hostile and Volatile Situations For Educators - Book Chapter III - An Overview of the Defusing Process 
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Defusing Hostile and Volatile Situations For Educators
Book Chapter III - An Overview of the Defusing Process

The following is an excerpt from our book entitled "Defusing
Hostile/Volatile Situations (for educators). Copyright 1995
(Robert Bacal). The book can be ordered directly from Bacal &
Associates at:

Publications, Bacal & Associates
252 Cathcart St.
Winnipeg, Mb., Canada, R3R 0S2

Cost is $33.95+$4.50 shipping. We will invoice with the book. A
companion workbook/exercise book is available for $14.95 + $4.50

For further information contact: or call at
(204) 888-9290.

Overview of The Defusing Process

r  Introduction

In the last chapter we discussed the nature of
anger, hostile behaviour and abusive behaviour.  In
this chapter we provide you with some basic
principles regarding defusing hostility.  In the
next chapter, we will get even more specific and
provide you with specific language to use, and
other defusing techniques.

Before we do that, let's do a little review of the
key points in the last chapter.

r  Review

1. At times parents and members of the public are
going to be angry,  and  you need to recognize 
that they have a right to be upset or angry.

2. People do NOT have the right to be abusive or 

3. You need to focus your attention on techniques
to reduce the  amount of  hostile behaviour aimed
at you.  If these techniques  cause the  other 
person to feel less angry, that's great, but that
isn't  something you  can  control.  

4. Hostile and abusive behaviour is intended to
control and  manipulate  you.

5. Hostile and abusive behaviour is learned at a
very young age, and  everyone has learned how to do

6. Hostile people will dangle bait in front of you. 
The first step to  avoiding  escalation of these
situations is to not take the bait.

7. The rules of the hostile "game" say that when
attacked, you are  EXPECTED to respond defensively,
or by counter-attacking.   When you  do so you play
the game according to the attacker's rules, and you
will  lose.

8. While angry people want their problems solved,
they will also  respond  positively if you:

 . appear helpful
 . offer choices
 . acknowledge their feelings
 . reassure

9. Hostile situations can escalate very quickly. 
One key to defusing  is to   control the
interaction from square one, and avoid doing 
things that will  cause the escalation cycle to

r  The CARP System - A Master      Strategy

The CARP system is simply a way to remind yourself
about the four major parts of the defusing process. 
It is what we call an umbrella strategy.

The CARP process is shown on page 37.  When you
look at the diagram, apart from the picture of the
goldfish, you will notice that each letter of
"CARP" stands for a different part of the process. 
The four parts are:

C ontrol
A cknowledge
R efocus
P roblem-solve

Let's go through these one by one.

r  Control

When you communicate with an irate person, they
will often "take the floor", refusing to listen to
you.  Often, they will take a verbally attacking
position, peppering you with questions, or insults,
and not letting you get a word in edgewise.  This
is particularly pronounced on the phone, but also
occurs in person.  Some have characterized the
behaviour of the irate person as "ranting".

In addition to the verbal behaviour of the irate
person, they may use non-verbal behaviour to
intimidate, anger, or otherwise make you feel
uncomfortable.  They may move into your space,
stare, and glare, and attempt to use height to
their advantage. As we have said before, the other
person attempts to control the interaction, by
causing you to become defensive, angry or

So, your first goal in the defusing process is to
gain control over the interaction.  You need to get
the person to the point where they are willing to
stop talking and listen.  If they don't stop their
"rant", there is not much chance of a positive
outcome.  You may also need to control the
interaction non-verbally, so that the person stops
using non-verbal intimidation tactics to put you
off balance.

As you will see when we talk about specific ways of
controlling the interaction, we want to be as
subtle as possible in reasserting control.  Telling
a someone to "get out of my face" is not likely to
work very well.  

The key in reasserting control is to behave in ways
that send the subtle sub-message "Your techniques
are not going to work on me".

While we will get into specific techniques later,
now would be a good time to provide you with an
example of how one public servant was able to
re-assert control of a hostile interaction.  While
this isn't an example from the world of education,
it is such a good example, for many reasons, that I
have included it here.

Picture a government office.  Since the branch
deals directly with the public, it has a
storefront.  It looks much like a bank, where
people line up and are served at a wicket.

Mr. Jones walks in, and after waiting in line,
arrives at the wicket.  He asks for what he wants
and the employee, Fred, informs the client that he
must fill in a series of forms, and provide some
documents (ie. birth certificate, etc).  Mr. Jones
starts getting angrier and angrier, and says:

"Why the hell didn't anyone tell me about this
before.  You want me to spend the next hour filling
out your damn forms, and on top of that I need a
birth certificate...why the heck can't I just use
my driver's licence.  You guys are so stupid and
inefficient...I am sick of having my tax money
support your inefficiency."

Fred, replies

"Sir, I know it's frustrating, but we can't process
your application without the forms being filled out
and the birth certificate.  Why don't you just fill
out the forms?"

This doesn't help at all, and Mr. Jones continues

"Because I have better things to do with my time,
it's too bad you don't. You know what you can do
with your F***** forms?  You can take them and
shove em where the sun don't shine". [Actually he
used more graphic language].

Fred replies:

"Mr. Jones, I would love to oblige you on that, but
unfortunately, I have five file folders, six other
forms and a large filing cabinet up there, and
quite honestly, I don't think that there is room
for much more".

Mr. Jones stops talking for a moment.  When he
realizes what the employee has said, his jaw drops. 
Then after a second or two, he starts laughing. 
Fred joins in.

Mr. Jones says:

"Look, I'm sorry.  I'm having a bad day, and I
don't mean to take it out on you.  Do I really have
to do all this?"

Fred replies:

"I know you are frustrated, but yes, we need the
forms done.  Can I make a suggestion as to how you
might do this as quickly as possible, so you don't
spend anymore time than necessary?"

Mr. Jones replies:

"Yeah, OK."

r  Quick Analysis

Notice what happened here.  Fred, using humour,
stunned Mr. Jones into giving up the floor.  He
used humour to surprise and defuse the hostile
person's anger.  In the "Food For Thought" section
at the end of the chapter, we will ask you a few
questions to further explore the technique used. 
The important thing to note is that Fred gained
control of the interaction so that he could move on
to a more productive discussion.

r  Acknowledge

The A in CARP stands for acknowledge.  Remember it
is important that the angry person see that you
understand his/her emotional state, and the
situation.  So, when we talk about acknowledging,
we are talking about two major techniques, empathy
and active listening.
The key point here is that a person's anger will
tend to diminish if the person feels you understand
them.  Again, we will talk about ways that work and
ways that don't when we get to specific techniques.

r  Refocus

The R in CARP refers to refocus.  When a person is
angry, that anger interferes with your ability to
work with the person quickly and effectively.  The
control and acknowledge components are designed to
calm the person down somewhat.  Refocusing involves
making the transition from dealing with emotions to
dealing with the actual problem.  

Note the sequence. We do not attempt to deal with
the problem until we have dealt with the feelings
first.  This is VERY important.

r  Problem-Solve

The P in CARP stands for problem-solving.

Before we move to problem-solving, we look to see
that the person is becoming more cooperative, less
emotional, and more rational. Refocusing provides
the transition to "getting down to business"
Problem-solving involves actions like getting and
giving information, suggesting possibilities and
appearing helpful,  offering choices as available,
agreeing on a course of action, and following

r  Important Points

The sequence of the CARP system is important. 
While you may try to gain control and acknowledge
almost at the same time, what is really important
is that you don't jump to problem solving too
early.  How do you know if it is too early?

When you find yourself explaining the same thing
over and over, or the person is just not listening
and continues to interrupt, the person isn't ready
to deal with the problem.  If this occurs, go back
to the acknowledgment component.

Remember that ALL four components are necessary to
effective defusing.  To illustrate, another story
is in order.

I had the opportunity to deliver a defusing
hostility seminar to a group of people.  In that
group was a manager, who we will call Roger.  Roger
liked the course, and said he found it very

About a year later, Roger called me up, and said he
wanted me to deliver the seminar to his staff.  I
agreed and we set up a few seminars.

At one of those seminars, I talked about the
importance of acknowledgment, and was talking about
using empathy.  Several of the staff there found
this quite amusing, and were whispering to one
another.  I was curious as to what was happening (I
always like a good joke), and at break time, asked
the two people what they found amusing.  One of the
fellows responded:

"Well, now we know where Roger got that empathy

His tone indicated that this was not a completely
positive statement, so I asked what he meant.  He

"Well, let me put it this way.  I go into Roger's
office to complain about the antiquated computer
equipment.  After I explain how bad it is, and that
we need to do something about it, Roger usually
says something like "You seem really frustrated
about this".  Then I explain that I am frustrated,
and we must do something about the equipment. 
Roger will say something like "It must be very
frustrating".  After a few minutes, I usually give

Now, the problem with Roger is he glommed on to the
acknowledgment part, but didn't figure out he had
to refocus and problem-solve, or he would come off
as a bit of an idiot.  He didn't use all of the
CARP components.  He appeared less than genuine. It
was clear to staff that ole Roger wasn't prepared
to be helpful or do anything useful.

If you think about it, it is rather amazing than
Roger hasn't been throttled by his staff!

r  Principles of Defusing

At this point we are going to look at twelve
principles that you can use to guide your defusing
efforts.  In the next chapter we will move to much
more specific actions and phrases you can use.

r  Principle 1: Deal With The Feelings First

A fundamental principle of defusing is that you
must deal with the anger and frustration first,
since an angry person tends to think unclearly, and
less rationally.  Empathy statements and questions
are effective ways to acknowledge the

r  Principle 2: Avoid Coming Across As Bureaucratic

Traditionally, government and government employees,
or those in publicly funded school systems have
been viewed as unfeeling and uncaring, and overly
formal and officious.  Some believe that if they
are aloof, very formal, and talk in complicated
language, they will gain more respect from clients. 
Unfortunately, the exact opposite is the case.  The
more bureaucratic you sound, the more likely you
are to infuriate the person you are dealing with.

We know that the more a person sees you as a gear
in the bureaucratic machinery, the more he/she
treat you like an object.  And this means, more
abuse. However, if you come across as a real human
being, with a name, and feelings, the hostile
individual is less likely to aim anger and hostile
behaviour at you.

A second reason to consider relates to the source
of the person's anger.  Although they may express
their frustration in ways that seem very personal
to you, in the form of slurs, and other attacks,
their anger is primarily about the system they are
interacting with.  You are just a handy target. 
The more they see you as "that system" the more
they are likely to direct their frustrations at

When dealing with parents or members of the public,
avoid coming across as bureaucratic.  It's better
to express a bit of personality, smile, and use the
person's name, and your name if possible.  Also
avoid bureaucratic language, or specialized
educational jargon.  For example, rather than
reading from a school or board policy, explain it
in common language, while making the original text
available.  Stay away from harsh language that can
be interpreted as inflexible (see section on
cooperative language). And stay away from the
expression "It's against policy", or anything
similar.  If you need to explain a policy,
introduce your explanation with something like:

"Let me explain how we usually do things.  We ask
that you..."

In other words, talk like a live human being, not a
bureaucrat.  You can say whatever you need to say
in a helpful, cooperative and human way.  You don't
need to be the bureaucrat.

By the way, many members of the public expect you
to be cold, distant, and formal.  Some may not
expect you to be nice or respectful. The have very
low expectations of you even before you have met. 
By not fitting these expectations, you throw the
angry person off.

r  Principle 3: Each Situation Is Different

While you can use this book, or take a seminar to
help you with defusing, the bottom line is that
each person you deal with is slightly different. 
One person may respond very well to a gentle
approach.  Another person may respond to a firm
tone, while someone else may require you to be
almost aggressive.  You must use your judgement and
experience, since you are the one interacting with
the person.

What this means is that you must observe the person
carefully, watching to see if anything in
particular is working.  If you try several empathy
responses and the person gets more hostile, either
you are misphrasing your responses (tone, words),
or, empathy just isn't going to work with that
person.  You decide.  You try out techniques, and
look for their effect.  If it works, keep doing it
and if it doesn't try something different.

r  Principle 4: Strive To Control The Interaction

Your two major tasks when dealing with a hostile
person are to acknowledge their feelings and
attempt to get them to start responding to you. 
Often, you will be doing both at the same time. 
Remember that if you can't get control, you can't
accomplish anything.

r  Principle 5: Begin Defusing Early

In an earlier section we discussed the escalation
cycle, and how angry interactions tend to escalate
with time, unless one person gets off the
merry-go-round.  The more the situation escalates,
the more time, energy and upset it is going to
create.  So, you want to begin defusing early.  In
fact, you can pre-empt angry attacks by taking
control of the interaction immediately (be the
first person to speak), and empathize, even before
the angry person has had a chance to launch the
first salvo.  One thing that will help you defuse
early is to look for non-verbal indications that
your client is upset, as they approach you.  If
they look tense, glance at their watch, scowl, etc,
then you should be particularly sure that you
defuse immediately.

r  Principle 6:  Be Assertive, Not Aggressive Or   

Being assertive means that you act in a confident
way, and that you talk calmly but firmly, if
necessary.  It also means that your physical
posture must be confident rather than too passive
or aggressive.

If you have taken an assertiveness training course,
you will doubtless be familiar with assertive
language such as:

"When you yell at me, I feel upset.  I would like
you to stop yelling, or I am going to end our


"When you get too close to me, I feel trapped.  I
would like you to step back, or I am going to ask
you to leave."

We DO NOT suggest you use this type of language
with angry clients.  It is fine with people with
whom you have relationships, but remember that the
angry client isn't particularly interested in your
feelings.  They are concerned about their own
feelings, and want to hear you recognize them
rather than vice versa.

So, we want to leave out references to our own
emotions, for the most part.  We will look more
carefully at this when we talk about assertive

Being assertive means being firm, sounding and
looking confident, and recognizing that, you too,
have rights.  

Now, let's look at aggressiveness and passivity. 
Most of us know how to be aggressive.  The
aggressive person uses very harsh language, a tone
of voice that sounds angry, and projects a
physically confrontational stance.  Note that we
include any expressions of frustration in this
category of behaviour, such as sighing, rolling the
eyes, etc.  That's aggressive too.

The problem with aggressive behaviour is that it
invites confrontation and argument.  If you want to
spend half an hour arguing over some off-topic
point, or if you want to put yourself at risk
physically, then be aggressive.  If, however, you
want to deal with the other person professionally
and quickly, and increase your own safety, then be
firm, assertive and calm.

At the other end of the spectrum is passivity. 
Passive people tend not to stand up for themselves,
use a tone of voice that is whiny or weak-sounding,
and tend to use a body posture that looks
powerless.  Some people believe that the more
passive you are the less likely people are to be
nasty to you.  The problem with this is that
passivity will entice a bully to redouble their
efforts at intimidation.  They will sense your
discomfort, and continue to attack if they feel you
are off balance or weak.

Again, assertiveness is the key.  Firm but
cooperative language and tone is the best choice
and avoids creating confrontations, or appearing
like you have a "kick me" sign on your butt.

r  Principle 7: If You Lose Control of Yourself,
You      Lose, Period

Perhaps the very worst thing you can do with a
hostile person is to lose control over your own
emotions, or , more specifically your behaviour. 
When you allow yourself to get angry and respond
aggressively, you are going to have an argument or
a physical confrontation.  If you get angry and
make a snarky remark, or use hostile body language,
you will simply provoke the person to continue.

What we stress here is that while you are allowed
to be angry or upset with a parent or member of the
public, it is not usually in your own interest to
"take it out" on that person.  It isn't so much an
issue of what's right or what's's a very
practical issue.  Allow yourself to get your
buttons pushed, and you are letting yourself in for
a string of hassles that you don't need. Another
point to remember - because of your position you
have less leeway to express your anger with a
parent, and not suffer negative consequences.
Parents, however can express their anger in a nasty
manner without having to deal with those same

Normally, when we talk about self-control, we talk
about anger control, but there is another issue. 
Hostile people don't just do things that contribute
to your anger.  They also do things that are
intimidating.  So self-control also involves
learning how to control your behaviour when someone
is trying to intimidate you.

It is absolutely essential that you pay attention
to controlling your own reactions.  You may not be
able to completely control your own anger, but at
least you can make sure that you don't communicate
your anger in ways that will make the situation

r  Principle 8:  What You Focus On, You Get More   

Sometimes I think this a general principle of life
and not just a defusing principle.  It seems like
when you focus your attention on something, you get
more of it.  When people focus on doing work rather
than results, they get more work.  When people
think about food all the time, they tend to eat a

With respect to hostile situations, this principle
has a specific application.  When a hostile person
brings up red-herrings that have little to do with
the reason you are dealing with them, you have one
of two choices.  The first is to sidestep the
red-herring and NOT focus much on it.  The second
is to "dignify" the red-herring by talking about
it.  If you focus on the red-herring, you will
encourage the person to talk more about it.  When
you do NOT focus on it, you are less likely to
encourage the person to continue on that theme.

But we have previously stated that it is important
to acknowledge the angry and frustrated feelings of
a parent.  Is this not focusing on something that
we don't want more of?  Yes and no.  The purpose of
acknowledging is to show that you are being
attentive and understanding, without going into any
depth about all the details of the person's
feelings or story.  That is why the CARP model
specifies that after acknowledging, you REFOCUS
back to the problem.  So you acknowledge and move
on.  Acknowledge and move on.

r  Principle 9: Don't Supply Ammunition

Lord knows, a hostile person can dredge up enough
ammunition by themselves without your help. You can
be sure that if you sigh, roll your eyes, show
frustration, mutter, or do similar things, you make
it easier for the verbal abuser. Your words and
actions can also be used against you if the person
chooses to lodge a complaint with someone else in
the organization  For example, when you slam the
phone down noisily on an obnoxious caller, you
encourage the person to complain to someone, and
claim that you slammed the phone down, or you were
rude.  And then you have to explain, and get more
frustrated with the situation.  If you are a
teacher, do you really want to spend time
explaining to the principal what has happened? You
don't need the hassle.

Things that you say can also be used as ammunition
against you and your organization.  Be aware that
some hostile people will try to get you to agree to
something, so they can use that agreement as a
weapon when talking to another staff member. For
example, a person complains to you that Jim, a
colleague of yours, gave him the wrong information. 
Without looking into it you reply "Well, obviously
Jim was mistaken".  The person you are talking to
may very well go back to Jim and quote you or say
something like "Even [your name] thinks you're
wrong, your very own staff".

See the problem?  So, one thing you want to think
about is what kinds of things you say and do that
might be used in the attack on you, or on another

r  Principle 10: Don't Ask Questions You Don't     
Want To Hear Answers To

Questions are an important tool in defusing.  But
often people will ask questions, when they really
do not want to deal with the answers, or spend any
time on the answers.  The best way to illustrate
this is with an example I often use in my seminars.

Parent:  It's because I'm green [ethnic background]
isn't it. You    just    don't like green people
and that's why you failed my son!"

Principal:  Why do you think I don't like green

Parent:  Isn't it obvious?  You failed my son! I
see you giving these    non-green    people    what
they want.  And I'm the only green    person I'd    have to be an idiot not to notice
your    racist attitudes...[and on    and on].

The Principal wanted to show that she was concerned
about the parent's remarks, and wanted him to know
that they were being taken seriously.  Presumably,
the idea was that the parent would realize the
employee was concerned and would calm down.

Unfortunately, look what happened.  The parent made
an accusation of bias, which we will presume was
untrue.  The Principal, by asking the question,
opened the door for more discussion which clearly
was not in anyone's best interests.  Note also how
this fits in with Principle Nine above.  The
educator focused on the accusation of racism, and
got more of it.

Now, in some situations, it may be appropriate to
ask the above question.  It depends on the
situation.  You need to judge whether there is
anything to be gained by asking such a question. 
If you NEED to ask it, then do so, but be aware
that it encourages the client to continue on the
topic, rather than on the problem the parent  is
having in the first place.

r  Principle 11: Avoid Inadvertent Errors

I know that you don't  intentionally say things to
people to make them angrier or more hostile.  Many
hostile situations escalate because the employee
does not realize that he or she is saying or doing
something that doesn't come across as helpful as
intended.  An example:

Someone calls asking for Marlene.  Marlene is out,
so you inform the caller that a message can be
left.  The caller complains about being given the
run-around and how long everything is taking.  You
inform the person that you will check to see if you
can do something for them and put them on hold.  It
takes you several minutes to find the file.  When
you get back to the phone, the customer explodes
about the wait.

What a surprise!  You may have been trying to be
helpful, but the caller TOLD you they were angry
about the time everything takes.  Is it any
surprise that they got angrier, having to wait SOME
MORE?  Not really.  You inadvertently made things
worse by trying to be helpful in the wrong way.

If you want to get really good at defusing, you
need to view your own behaviour AS IT APPEARS to
the other person.  It may be that what you think
will be helpful, from your perspective, may be seen
as negative by the person you are speaking to. 
Think like the other person, or put yourself in
their position.  That can help.

Here are some additional sample phrases that may be
well meaning, but will escalate the interaction:

"You know, your child isn't the only one in the
"If we made an exception for you, then we would
have to make an exception for everyone"

We will discuss this further when we examine
confrontational vs. cooperative language, and the
notion of "hot phrases".

r  Principle 12:   Avoid High Risk, High Gain      

High risk, high gain behaviour is behaviour that,
when it works, is very effective in defusing.  When
it doesn't work it escalates the conflict to an
extreme degree.  For example, telling someone to be
quiet may be effective in some situations, and the
other person may realize that he is acting
inappropriately. But for many people, being told to
be quiet is like being told to shut up, and is
bound to escalate the situation.

Another example is humour.  Humour can be a great
technique to defuse a situation, when it works.  If
you can say something that gets the other person to
smile or laugh, you will probably defuse the
situation.  However if you try humour and the other
person doesn't think it's funny, they will think
you just aren't taking them seriously.  Then they
will be really mad.  High risk, high gain.

r  Food For Thought

1. Take a look at the following situation.  While
it isn't an education  example, the principles
apply to almost any situation. Consider the 
question: Why did the customer blow up?

 A workplace, health and safety inspector discovers
that a manufacturing  machine is unsafe.  Fixing
the machine is going to cost the owner  thousands
of dollars, and he is upset and angry. After
working with the  owner, the inspector finally gets
the owner to calm down and give in.   As the
inspector is leaving he says: "Oh, by the way, I am
going to be  back in two weeks to make sure you
have kept your promise." The  owner starts
shouting.   Why did the customer blow up?

2. Make a list of statements and phrases that sound
bureaucratic.  Promise  yourself you will avoid
these phrases.

3 Go back to our humorous example on pages 39-40. 
In this real life  example, the approach worked. 
What would have happened had it not  worked?  What
general principles can you suggest regarding the
use of  humour?




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