top of page

Other Ways to Stay Safe:
De-escalation and Negotiation

Authors' Note: We couldn't pack everything we wanted into the book, so here's some bonus content that you won't find anywhere else! 

 

Most of the time assertiveness is the most practical way to protect yourself. But in some situations, de-escalation, negotiation, or going along may be safer and more effective (for more on going along, see page 163 of the book).

De-escalation 

De-escalation is bringing the temperature down. It’s a way to establish communication and reduce the possibility of escalation and violence. The goal is to calm another person—and possibly yourself—so you can get to safety.

You may choose to use it when someone is being threatening, angry, or out of control. People who are being very aggressive aren’t operating from the more evolved, thinking part of their brains (they’re usually triggered into fight mode), so negotiation and assertiveness typically won’t work.

De-escalation can be useful, for example, when dealing with an abusive partner, during a hate crime, or when there’s a big power imbalance. 

De-escalation can be a smart way to reduce harm when dealing with an abusive partner. Whether they’re threatening you, putting you down, calling you names, restricting your movements, or striking you, calming the abusive person may help you get through the attack with as little harm as possible. You can stay active by guarding your body and by reminding yourself silently, “I don’t deserve this.” Many people who are being abused take this approach intuitively.

Later, when the abuser is calmer (or not there) and you’re not dealing with an immediate threat, you can take steps to protect yourself longer term, such as making a safety plan (see the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the Resources section for help with this), getting support, gathering resources, and setting limits.

When you’re de-escalating, you don’t need to agree or feel aligned in your heart with what you’re doing. For example, to calm the situation, you may apologize for something you don’t feel sorry about or you’re not responsible for. De-escalation is simply a strategy for increasing your safety; it can create opportunities to leave a physically dangerous situation without having to use force. 

In such a situation, if you need to set a boundary, use de-escalation first so that the rational, communicating part of the aggressor’s brain can come back online. Then you can tell them what you want or need.

In other situations, you may be able to increase your safety by using negotiation. Negotiation, like assertiveness, is a way of asking for what you want. When hearing the word negotiation, most people think of getting better pay or working out an international treaty, but it also can be effective in increasing your safety and well-being.

For example, you can use it to ask for what you want in a relationship. You can also use it to minimize harm in a sexual assault, or to buy yourself time or change the circumstances so you can leave or resist.

If you identify as a woman or were raised as a girl, you’re more likely to have good de-escalation skills, because that’s what society and culture train us in and ask of most of us. These are practices like:

  • listening,

  • solving the problem,

  • apologizing (even if you’re not sorry),

  • sympathizing,

  • agreeing (even if you don’t really),

  • calming someone down,

  • allowing the other person to save face.

 

But those of us who are survivors tend to have a bigger, and earlier, stress response (remember fight-flight-freeze). This is related to negativity bias (which we discussed in Chapter 6 of the book): the brain is responding powerfully to things that are similar to the terrible, scary situation that already happened in order to make sure we won’t get hurt again.

So it can be extra challenging to de-escalate a dangerous situation if we ourselves get triggered into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

Even if you’re not a survivor, it’s super normal to escalate in response to a threat or to someone else’s escalation: someone threatens us, we threaten them back.

That’s how road rage happens. If someone’s disrespecting you, you might be tempted to give them the finger. And they might decide to hit you after you do. Both people may lose the ability to think clearly. There are times in your life when you might’ve lost control. Is the feeling of “flying off the handle,” “blowing a gasket,” or “losing it” familiar?

The common thread of these experiences is that your rage (or other emotion) takes over and you don’t have the ability to make rational decisions about how to act. Knowing your own triggers can help you stay grounded and make good decisions in situations like this.

If you know your triggers, you can choose to respond rather than react to threats or disrespect. Your actions stay in your control. Again, the best and easiest (though we’re not saying it’s easy) action to take is to consciously deepen and notice your breath.

Nadia's story

One of Nadia’s triggers is when someone says, “I don’t care what you want,” or “I don’t care what you feel.” Once, during an afternoon out with a woman she was dating, the woman criticized and picked on Nadia often. Nadia finally got it together to tell the woman that it was upsetting her and asked her to stop. The woman said something like “I don’t care what you feel,” and Nadia punched her. Luckily, Nadia has gotten much better at knowing herself and her triggers, and at managing her emotions, since then.

If we’re going to act and make decisions for our safety, we need to be able to access the prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational part of our brains.

Using some of the grounding and centering techniques at the beginning of each chapter, you can calm yourself to move through fight-fight-freeze. This is one of the reasons we practice grounding: you can’t de-escalate someone else until you de-escalate yourself—or take steps to keep yourself from going there to begin with.

Not to say it isn’t hella hard. Fight-flight-freeze can have a serious grip on you in the middle of a problematic situation.

When you decide to de-escalate, follow these five steps.

Step 1: Anchor Yourself

  • Breathe deeply. For you, it creates calm; it can help them by giving them an example of calm to mirror.

  • Visualize your goal, such as “I want to be able to leave” or “I want them to step back.”

  • Picture what action you’ll take.

  • Use positive self-talk. If you get caught in thinking, “What will they do to me?” you won’t be able to think clearly and make decisions for your safety. Instead, remind yourself you can get through this.

Step 2: Assess for Safety

  • Where is the safest place for you to be? Be aware of where the aggressor’s escape is and where yours is. If possible, stand or sit where each one of you could leave without having to go through the other one. If the other person is between you and the way out, while you’re talking, step slowly in a circle, moving yourself around the person, so that you’re in a better position to leave.

  • Be at least two arm lengths away from them if you can. See if there are barriers you could put between you and the aggressor if you need protection, like a couch, a bar, a desk, or a car.

  • Who else is around? If there are others, could they be helpful to you? Might they be threats?

  • Can you leave? If you can leave safely, go for it! Leaving is an excellent de-escalation option. Be sure to face the aggressor as you go.

Step 3: Show Your Cool

  • Use nonthreatening body language. Stand at a forty-five-degree angle diagonal to them with your hands visible. That way you won’t have to absorb all their menacing energy; instead, it can pass by you. It also allows them to see—and feel—that they have an escape. (Standing straight on to them can feel confrontational or boxed in.)

  • Look at their face, but don’t necessarily look them in the eyes. Put your face in listening mode. (Keep breathing!)

  • Eye contact has many different meanings depending on the situation, the people involved (especially if you were raised in different cultures from each other), and more. If you decide to use eye contact—which many interpret as a sign of confidence—use a soft gaze rather than a penetrating one.

Step 4: Connect

There are an infinite number of ways to de-escalate a threatening person. Take your ego out of it—what’s happening isn’t personal. Think about what you need when you’re enraged; that may help you understand some options for dealing with an escalated situation. You may come up with your own creative strategy in the moment. Here are some of the most effective.

Ask, listen, empathize

This is the most important part of de-escalation. Let the other person know you understand them (even if you don’t). Reflect back what they say. Ask nonthreatening questions—this can be used to show empathy or to control the situation. It can also get you information about what they want that can help you negotiate. Invite them to talk, acknowledge what they’re saying and their feelings, and agree with whatever you can.

Here are some de-escalating phrases:

  • “I’m sorry that happened.”

  • “Tell me about the problem.”

  • “That sounds really upsetting.”

  • “What would you like me to do?”

  • “That’s terrible!”

  • “I’d be furious too.”

  • “Yeah, I hear that.”

  • “Would it help if I . . . ?”

Mia's Story

Nadia’s friend Mia worked at a social services agency that helped victims and survivors of intimate partner violence. Mia was the only one in the office when a very angry man came in, storming around and threatening her. Mia took a deep breath, looked at him, and said, “You must be in a world of hurt.” He immediately calmed down.

Create a bond

Use inclusive language: say “let’s” or “we.” “Let’s move over here where we can be more comfortable.”

Use “and” instead of “but.” “I do like you, and I don’t feel comfortable meeting alone when you’re so angry.”

Other verbal strategies

  • Apologize, even if you aren’t responsible for or aren’t sorry about whatever is upsetting them.

  • Compliment them, thank them, “kill” them with kindness.

  • Use humor (but not at their expense!). Humor can be a way to interrupt something while allowing the other person to save face (since there’s no overt confrontation). For example: “Oh Jared, if I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were up to no good.”

  • Act as if there’s no attack. Don’t respond to hostile energy. For example, if someone says, “You’re such a bitch!” you can keep moving and say, “Have a great weekend!”

  • Match and lead. If you tell a person who’s yelling to calm down, it can escalate even more (how do you feel when someone says that to you?). If you out-yell them, that also could further escalate the situation. Instead, match their volume and then very slightly step it down. They’ll probably match you. Repeat and once again step it down. This way you can lower the temperature a little bit at a time. This works because people tend to unconsciously mirror each other. It’s the same reason that if you’re in a group and one person takes a drink of water or recrosses their legs, others will likely do the same.

  • Take action or solve the problem. If you can make yourself safer by doing what the person wants (for example, handing over your wallet or remaking their burrito), that’s a smart choice. Or show the person that you’ll take action. For example, hand them a piece of paper and a pen, or a phone or a tablet and say, “Please write down all your concerns and I’ll make sure the manager sees it.”

  • Create a distraction. Distracting someone can buy you time or create an opening for escape or resistance. For example, one person who was being attacked called out to a neighborhood dog that they knew would start barking. This not only distracted the would-be assailant, it also attracted attention.

  • Lie. Although lying sometimes is ineffective if an aggressor can work around it or show that you’re not telling the truth, it can also be useful. “I have a meeting now,” “I’d love to have coffee with you next week,” “I have to make a call,” and “Luisa has the stuff you need and will be here at 4 p.m.” are the kinds of statements that might help you delay or de-escalate a situation.

 

Some things to avoid, as tempting as they may be: Don’t point at them, and don’t touch them. Don’t call them names or use put-downs. Don’t invade their space. Be as respectful of them as you want them to be of you.

Step 5: Find a Safe Exit

  • Ask or tell them to leave.

  • Delay the interaction. Make a plan to continue when someone else can join you or when people are calmer. In a sexual assault, think of it as better time, better place. You can say: “Why do this here? Let’s go to my place where it’s more comfortable . . .” (We’ll talk about this more below, in negotiation.)

  • Give them an out. For example, you could say, “Listen, leave right now and I won’t tell anyone about what happened.” (Whether or not you then tell is totally up to you.)

De-escalation isn't the same as losing. In fact, you can think of it as making the choice to "lose to win" (sometimes temporarily), and in some situations, it can be the best way to support your survival, safety, and well-being. 

 

Negotiation

Another strategy you can use to ask for what you want and to stand up for yourself is negotiation. For example, when you’re getting a job or asking for a raise, you may have to or want to negotiate your pay. When you’re asking for what you want in a relationship—like more together time or more time apart—you may choose to negotiate. For example, “Would you be willing to commit to being home for dinner three nights a week?” or “I need two nights a week to myself. Which nights would be best for you?”

When it comes to harassment, abuse, or assault, you might want to use negotiation to increase your safety or decrease the harm done to you in the moment or in an ongoing situation (for example, by getting the attacker to use a condom, by moving yourself to a better location, or by allowing you to move a child to another room to keep them out of danger or to avoid them witnessing an assault). You also might be able to change the circumstances to make it possible for you to leave (for example, by going to another room) or to resist.

Before you negotiate, check in with how you feel and what you want or need (see Chapter 6 for more on this). This is how you decide what to negotiate for. Most likely, what you want or need is for the aggressor to stop. If you can get them to do that by setting a boundary, go for it! But if setting that boundary doesn’t seem like it’ll work, or if the risk to you seems too high to set the boundary, you may be able to negotiate to reduce harm and improve the situation, even if you can’t end it.

Here are some examples of negotiating during a physical or verbal assault.

  • “I’ll do what you want. Just let me first go [change my clothes/brush my teeth/take a birth control pill/take out my tampon].”

  • “I’m totally into it! Let’s just move to the other room so we don’t wake the baby.”

  • “Of course I want to have sex with you. I just need you to put the weapon down first. It’s making me nervous, and you totally don’t need it.”

  • “Why do this here? We can go to my place. Just let me make sure no one’s home.”

  • “I’ll totally do what you want [stop seeing that friend/skip my sibling’s wedding/quit my job/be home before you every night to fix dinner/let you read all my texts] if you stop yelling at me. Can we agree on that?”

  • “I’d really like to hear more about what you’re saying. I just keep getting distracted when you [threaten me/use insults/wave the knife around]. Could you stop doing that and then I’ll listen? I’m sure we can work this out."

Of course, once the person does what you’ve asked, you don’t have to follow through on your promise. 

You can also use negotiation during other high-stakes situations. For example, if a boss is threatening your job; if someone’s threatening to out your gender, sexual orientation, or immigration status; if an ex is challenging your custody agreement; or if someone is trafficking you for sex, negotiation may make your situation better or give you more options.

bottom of page