How To Keep Cool in a Crisis

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S1: We want people to take action when there’s injustice. You know, we don’t want people to just walk by and ignore. But we also want people alive.

S2: You’re listening to how to I’m Amanda Ripley. Back in May of 2017, something terrible happened on a crowded train in Portland, Oregon. It all started when a self-described white nationalist named Jeremy Christian started ranting and raving. Police say he shouted racist, anti-Muslim slurs at a 17 year old Somali girl who was wearing a hijab and her friend, a 16 year old black girl, frighten the girls moved to the back of the train car, and three other men tried to de-escalate the situation. One told Christian in a loud voice, You need to get off this train. Christian shoved a man and then the man shoved him back and everyone started screaming. According to a witness, Christian said, Touch me again and I’m going to kill you. Christian then fatally stabbed two of the men and injured the third. Last year, Kristian was sentenced to two life terms in prison. This is a tragedy in so many ways. On the one hand, it’s an example of humans heroically standing up to hate and trying to protect each other. On the other hand, two people are dead. This is not how anyone wants any public confrontation to end. We’ll never know if there could have been a better outcome. And we’d hate to second guess anyone who tries to stop a bad actor. But we can’t help but wonder, is there a way to defuse a volatile situation like this without getting hurt in the process? Is that even possible? This is a really hard question. So today we’re continuing our conversation with two veteran conflict interrupters Matt Smith travels the country teaching people how to de-escalate crises.

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S3: And one of our taglines is de-escalation. It’s everyone’s job as long as there’s not an imminent safety threat.

S2: And Dan Christensen is a bus driver in Portland who often deals with unruly passengers. He’s still haunted by the train attack in his city.

S1: The whole situation saddens my heart so much, and I always feel if I was on that train, I could help.

S2: It turns out Dan actually knew the perpetrator.

S1: I’d had him on my bus. To me, he was what I call a lost soul. He went around and joined groups. Most, most groups didn’t even want to have him on board. But what he really wanted to do was talk about comics on my bus and. I know everybody on that train was trying to do the right thing. But when it’s a crowd of people reacting, that can make things much worse. Hmm.

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S4: And so these people were trying not to be trying not to make the bystander non-intervention mistake, right?

S1: Yeah. And of course, no one wants anyone hurt, and no one wants anyone assaulted on the bus, right? Verbally assaulted or racially. That’s just all. It’s all manner of wrong. I had a similar situation. He just pissed someone off once. I can’t remember. And I just said, Come up here, leave that guy alone. Let’s talk. You know, stop the bus here. The bus, open the doors, say, Hey, come up here, talk to me.

S4: Uh huh..

S1: And I would talk to them about comics. And that was it. It’s so frustrating. Conflicts between people on the buses is the hardest thing because as you’re solving one issue, the other issue can just bubble up. You know this righteous rage of a whole crowd? And I had one guy who just his thing was he got on the bus. He pretended to see someone in the back of the bus. He had a conversation with them, got mad, went back there and yelled, profanity and racial slurs and people and I tell him, this is going to happen. This happens every day he gets on the bus, but he only rides 20 blocks if you just be patient for 20 blocks. He’ll get off and we’ll keep going at rush hour. No, no hassle.

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S4: So this guy who comes on and is every and you know what he’s going to do, he’s going to scream profanities for 20 blocks, and you usually warn the other passengers about. Yes. Yes. And does that usually work?

S1: Yes, it does. I tell them, Look, it’s OK. We all want to get home. That’s why we’re here on rush hour in a bus.

S3: So you’re kind of saying the juice is not worth the squeeze?

S1: Yeah. And I tell him, he’s all. He’s all jump. No trampoline. So don’t just let him go.

S4: And so, God, it must have broken your heart to read the stories about that train attack, knowing what you know.

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S1: Yeah. And then when I saw the breakdown of it later, oh, you know, it’s like you have to realize that a lot of people you’re dealing with aren’t on your level. They’re not a rational person who just happens to be mad or doing that. They may have chemical treatment they’re on. They may have severe impairments unable to judge other people’s emotions and actions. Like I said, I always treat everyone on the bus like they’re better armed than me because they are. And I’m buckled to a chair. So I the main thing in my mind always is everyone goes home safe.

S2: On last week’s episode, we talked about how to stop a fight before it starts. The safest option often is to leave or aggressively egress, as bus driver Dan said, Get out of there. But what if that’s not possible? On today’s show, the second in our two part series, we’re focusing on what to do and most importantly, what not to do once a fight is underway. Both Matt and Dan are experts in defusing conflict, but that doesn’t mean they’ve never been caught up in a rumble themselves. In fact, that’s how they learn some of their most surprising tips, including the power of humor in a very tense moment. Stay with us! So Matt, what is one of the most common mistakes that you have seen people make when they’re trying to de-escalate?

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S3: The biggest mistake people make, in my opinion, is looking at someone in crisis and asking themselves what’s wrong with this person instead of what happened to this person that they got to this point. That’s one of those things that changes the whole scope of how you deal with people. It truly does. And then, like Dan was talking about grouping up is we always want to remove the audience factor. And sometimes that, like Dan said, it’s as simple as saying, Hey, man, I got a great setup here in the front of the bus. Why don’t you come talk to me? Let’s look out the window together. What real violence looks like is pig piles, people losing their fine motor control. It’s just messy and fast, and it usually involves way too many people, whether it’s the front end of an emergency department or the common area of a library in New York City. That’s what it looks like.

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S1: People stay on that, you know, above anger and rage and all that is something worse when it involves other people when you start to get collective action.

S2: Basically, when we’re talking about a public conflict, more people can mean more problems. It may feel like there’s strength in numbers when you’re confronting someone, but it also ratchets up the pressure and can escalate things.

S3: It’s also, I want to say, not excusing their behavior, it’s not at a no point are we saying it’s OK to use racist language, it’s OK to threaten someone. We’re not saying that at all. We’re just saying within that what’s going to be more helpful in the moment is not trying to fix them and solve what’s wrong with them. That doesn’t really leave us any more helpful. But having that connection, having the professional courage, see them as a human and connect in that way. And that’s just another articulation of the two step, you know, the rapport first,

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S2: the two step Matt just referred to is a simple method we learned about in our last episode. Basically, you want to earn rapport and then leverage that rapport, acknowledge the person’s struggle and then ask them what they need. But this is really hard to do in a split second, as Dan experienced on one of his shifts.

S1: You know, this person was yelling at me. He got off the back of the bus. I couldn’t figure out why he was mad. You walked by the front. I said, Hey, what happened? Because I thought maybe somebody did something to him while he was back there. And then he started yelling directly at me about me and I went, Wow, I must have done something. And he’s walking down the street, away from the bus in front. Looking back at me, point Matt me and yelling. He walks right into a phone pole. Everybody on the bus roars with laughter. And he runs back on the bus and punches me.

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S4: Yes, he was humiliated

S1: to this day, I think I could have handled that better because, well, you could’ve reacted more empathic. I could have said, Hey, are you hurt? As I look back in retrospect, I think I had time to do something. There was like this couple second delay. I could see his brain working and I could have swayed that. But you

S4: know. And oh, my God is guaranteed, yeah.

S1: Humiliation is as painful as striking, some people are.

S4: That’s why you don’t want to use sarcasm, yeah, right, you don’t want to do anything to make people feel so.

S1: That was my experience in that area of of where it goes wrong, where you freeze, right? My my. Yeah, it’s fight, flight or freeze. And I froze. I was fine.

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S4: What happened? So he starts

S1: wailing. No, no one. I don’t ever know the driver

S4: so they can laugh, but they can’t help.

S1: He was punching at me and I kept saying, What’s hap? What are you doing? What are you doing? And he kept punching me, but he wasn’t really connecting. And then he got one good kind of overhand hit on my head and hit my head against the window. And then he just walked away. I know that drivers dream and everything. So it’s just a human issue. You’ve got to overcome and it doesn’t stick to you. People can call me any name in the book and it makes no difference to me. When I get off work and my foot touches the parking lot, I’m laughing and whistling and singing and playing music, and it doesn’t stick to you.

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S4: Wow. It’s like depersonalized, it’s just it’s not

S1: about just like bumps on the road, I could get mad at potholes, but it wouldn’t help.

S4: I mean, I think a sense of humor helps. I saw you had a tweet the other day, there are special risks you face as a tri Matt bus driver. Yesterday, mine was a drunk guy on my bus who kept singing the Brady Bunch chorus over and over

S1: 40 minutes of The Brady Bunch, The Brady Bunch.

S4: My god. Oh, that’s the mandatory overtime pay.

S1: I stopped. I started laughing.

S2: Oh, here’s another universal tip in any conflict. Never humiliate anyone. It will make things worse. Matt learned this lesson early in his career when he worked with troubled teenagers in a wilderness therapy program.

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S3: There was this one student that I worked with in Wilderness, and he was struggling and he, for whatever reason, was escalated and decided that he was going to dig a hole. But he had been, you know, shouting obscenities. He had been threatening behaviors. He had been throwing things at people like rocks and sticks. So he kind of kind of spouts off, goes off about 20 20 yards and starts digging this hole and literally digging a hole. But at one point I looked over and I see half his body sticking out of the hole. And then another point I look over and I just see the dirt fly half of this giant hole. I couldn’t believe it. I was astonished. I walk over and. He continued to likes Getaway Getaway now. I figured, all right, he’s working off energies, digging a hole, he’s not heard anything. Let’s let him work off some energy. He’s taken space, you know, all good. And I said, Hey, man, are you aware that you are digging yourself into a hole while you’re digging a hole?

S4: This is what I’ve been thinking the whole time.

S3: Yeah, like the. And it was like just literally the metaphorical significance was too much for me not to say. But he immediately took. He had a bill Billy can. He was digging with. He immediately took that Billy can and whipped it at me and hit me in the head with it. And I was like, You know, if that was my bad and I walked away and gave him space and it just honestly. So the takeaway was that in that moment, in my honest moment, that I’m not proud of, like I wasn’t trying to antagonize that kid, I believe I made a great effort with him in that moment. I couldn’t resist being right because he was I couldn’t resist being right. And so often when we see people in conflict, we see the guy in the train shouting obscenities or racial slurs. We’re just sure that we’re right and you’re probably right. But where does that leave us in crisis? I think we just need to let go of right or wrong, because in that moment I couldn’t resist the urge to be right. And what happened? I got I got rocked in the face with a Billy can the man.

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S2: Quick tip and this is important. Let go of being right, at least in the midst of hot conflict. It’s not worth it.

S4: So you get hit in the face, beamed in the face with a metal pot. How did you then say that was my bad?

S3: Honestly, at that point in my life, I’ve been exposed to a tremendous amount of violence and behavioral aggression. And I think for some people, things get worse when you’ve been exposed to a lot of things, and for others, things slow down. So I have a strange ability. I don’t get angry at assaults me. Things slowed out for me, but other things like benign things tend to get under my skin. So in that moment, I I took that Billy Cantor’s feedback.

S4: I just realized you didn’t escalate. Write me and throw it back at him, right? No, I just said he’s trapped in a hole. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S3: And I mean, it was I just like I was, I knew that what I said was not helpful. I was standing outside the hall. He was standing in the hall. So just like we want to be on people’s level when they’re in crisis. So I took the Billy Kim’s feedback and

S1: you reminded me there’s a quote by a Sufi mystic, and this sounds strange to add in here, but it was. I’m going to butcher it somewhere beyond right thinking and wrong thinking is a garden, and I’ll meet you there. And I always it was sort of a quote to get yourself out of the conflict of who’s right and who’s wrong.

S4: I can’t resist from jumping in here because I used that quote by Rumi to open my last book, Conflict because I love it so much, and I’m so glad that you like it too.

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S1: I love it. I love it

S4: out. Beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. Yes.

S2: When we come back, we’ll hear a few more nuggets of wisdom on how to meet people in that field somewhere beyond right and wrong. Don’t go anywhere. So listen to how to zero abs with unlimited articles on Slate.com and support all of our journalism. Sign up for Slate Plus now, for a limited time only, you can get $25 off your first year. There are so many perks to joining Slate, plus no ads on any Slate podcast. Plus, you’ll get an extra episode of our How to Do It sex advice podcast every Monday. And a member exclusive segment on political gabfest every week. Again, if you sign up right now for a limited time, you’ll get $25 off your first year. Just go to Slate dot com slash how to. Plus, again, that Slate.com slash how to. Plus. We’re back with crisis intervention expert Matt Smith and bus driver Dan Christensen.

S4: We’ve talked a little bit about some tactics and things you can do not do, you know, probably worth pointing out that the ideal thing is to prevent. Conflict to begin with. Is there anything that you can do Dan when you’re driving the bus to lower the odds before a flare up occurs?

S1: This this seems almost cliche, but how you greet people on the bus matters. Hmm. I couldn’t agree more. Yeah, yeah. Hi. Welcome aboard. I say welcome aboard like I’m a conductor of our welcome aboard. Come on. You know this one guy I saw the other day he was dressed. It looked like the 70s. I had lived through the 70s. So I do, you know, he had these corduroy bell bottoms and that he didn’t have a shirt. He had a vest. And I said, Come on aboard the love bus. And he laughed so hard. I thought that was so funny. And people’s initial experience on the bus sets a tone.

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S4: And seizing that opportunity every time someone I

S1: only have a second or two to do this, so I’m put on a little show at the start. It’s like planting seeds in a garden.

S4: And that matters. You never know when you’re going to need to harvest them, right? Yeah. And they subconsciously or consciously they remember all that guy was the guy who said, Welcome aboard, like he’s a friendly. Yeah, you know, they consciously Matt. I know you’re dying to chime in here. What do you think about this?

S3: Yeah, I mean, I think where the rubber meets the road, I mean, for you, Dan literally is that it’s the interaction conversation exchange you had with someone two minutes ago, 15 minutes ago, a day ago, three days ago. That gives you the power or not to de-escalate them. It’s I think that’s so true and something we spend a lot of time looking at with training is positive or negative refraction. So the idea is that when you approach them in a crisis, their emotional brain is going to make a snap judgment about you as good or bad, safe on, say, positive or negative, because that kind of thing has survival value. And that’s what our emotions do for us as they navigate us through life, keep us away from danger and move us towards safety, which is connection with other people. So it’s not what we say, it’s how we say it. What we know, looking at the science behind this is that when someone’s in crisis, they get often enough. They get louder messages from our body language and our facial expressions and the tone of our voice.

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S1: That’s perfect. Yeah. Little things and you don’t know what little cues you’re sending out. Like, I noticed there’s a difference if I say welcome aboard air and if I’m smiling, even though they can’t see my smile under the mask, they’ll pick that up.

S4: Yeah, yeah, you can hear it in the voice.

S3: And then that’s sticky and that sticks with them and that carries you into. But if you have to go in and calm down, that’s quite helpful.

S2: Here’s another surprising tip Seize every opportunity to build rapport with strangers. You never know when you’ll need it. In Dan’s case, he’s learned that humor works wonders.

S1: Yeah, yeah. The person who drove my route before I did stop me once this says, you’re going to have a miserable time and I’m like, Why? I just got his route and he goes, There’s this group of five kids on this route that you’ll get them all the time. They never pay. And my first thought was, I don’t care. And so I started joking with them when they got on and I quite clutched my heart and I went, Oh God, thank God, you guys didn’t pay. And they looked at me and I said, I heard about you. And they said, if they ever pay, you’re going to die of a heart attack tonight. Like, please, I’m 50 years old. And so I joke and joke about that. I was like, Oh, I touch my heart as I pulled up at my bus and I’d look at them with, like scared eyes and they’d laugh, Guess what they’re paying now they have passengers. And every time they get out, they go, get ready for a heart attack, you know? But that that humor built.

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S2: OK, OK. But that takes practice to build, right? I mean, Matt are there are ways that people try to show that they’re sympathetic in crisis.

S3: The backfire. We literally have a list of them. So there’s a there’s a funny example. Yeah. So a good example, something I think is helpful for me is empathic. Statements rarely begin with the words. At least I think that’s a good example where you’re talking about where so the so the other night I was on the road traveling for training and our son Grayson had been up all night and my wife is gone. You know, the two and a half year old and the sick, we have a six week old at home and she’s been up all night long and the next morning we’re checking in. And I came to this point in the conversation as I’m literally running into a training. Well, at least, at least at least they slept better the night before. As soon as the words left my mouth, I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring it back and couldn’t call that back. And I think another one mistake people make is thinking empathy is agreement. That’s another big one. Oh yeah. You know we can. If I can let go of that part and still have empathy for someone, if they’ve done something bad or they’re doing some behavior, that’s not OK and they’re threatening someone else’s safety, causing a big problem, whatever, I can have empathy for them without agreeing with what they’re doing. Hmm.

S4: What about, you know, if someone’s upset and they’re really angry? Is it helpful to sort of, you know, put your arm around them and show them your you’re on their team?

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S3: Definitely not. OK? Definitely not. Honestly, though, we see that all the time. That is a very common thing that the other person wants to do. And I just saw this the other day, so I’m in line waiting to pick up a Matt at the grocery store, at the pharmacy. And there is a gal a few spots ahead of me, an older woman, and she’s there. Having some issue with the Matt, obviously, I couldn’t hear exactly what’s going on, but I can tell by their nonverbals that they’re in a huff. And then the woman behind the counter, who I happen to know is a very nice, good person. She pointed and said, Go sit down. That’s a that’s a big step. You don’t want to point because that signals aggression and communicates arousal and everyone that’s looking at someone point. So that’s triggered for people in crisis. And then people or when people see someone in crisis, they often want them to sit down. It gives them a false sense of security. But when someone’s escalated and they’re emotionally hijacked, that’s the last thing they want to do because it’s not conducive to running away or fighting, which is what people feel or to do when they’re escalated.

S2: The woman eventually sits down, Matt says, but she’s doing just glaring at the pharmacist, clearly upset. So then another female pharmacist comes out from the back to try and calm her down, which seems like a nice thing to do right. But she makes one big mistake.

S3: So the woman kind of swoops in on the escalated woman’s flank and grabs her arm, and the woman immediately jumps and cocks her arm like she’s going to punch. And in my experience, people often get hit when they do that. So when you touch someone when they’re in crisis, that creates tremendous reactivity.

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S2: This is another counterintuitive tip. Even though you have the best of intentions, never touch someone in crisis. Just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is right.

S1: I mean, it goes back to what I said first, it’s that confinement drives the reaction upwards on the scale.

S4: Yeah, it reminds me. I mean, we’ve we’ve been hearing a lot right about better training around crisis de-escalation for law enforcement. And we’ve certainly seen plenty of videos of, you know, violating some of these basic tenets when when police officers go to confinement really quickly, right? Or escalate things.

S3: You know, a police officer with their current training is is expected and coached to have a strong command presence and control the scene. And that tends to create a lot of that negative refraction that we talked about, which leads up to a lot of the conflict we see in diagnosing those videos. So part of that is the practical limitations. Part of that is some policy work on the use of force continuum and a big part of it or not. I don’t feel the need to hold back in saying is a culture shift. There’s been resistance to de-escalation training because you have politicians and senators calling for de-escalation when someone’s pointing a gun at a police officer or there’s an imminent need for some kind of physical response because that police officer wants to make it home to their family. And if we can encourage that by not saying de-escalation is going to replace a safe response,

S1: what if every time that person had encountered a police officer, they had a different type of encounter, right? Instead of the authoritative in your face, they had a de-escalation approach that made sure that resolved someone’s human issues first. And then you don’t get to the moment of criticality because

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S4: it changes the script, right?

S1: Script changes that script to Hey, I need this policeman to help solve this problem. And I’ve seen I’ve seen changes in the last 15 years in the Portland police, for instance, in when they even talking to somebody who might seem out of control, they stand way back. They’re not in your face. They’re stand back. Their hands are on their Belson just like relaxed posture. The policeman actually started to, I think, buying into some of this and I’ve seen different approaches.

S2: I’ve seen this where I live to in D.C., where there are over a dozen different police departments between the locals and the feds, and you can tell which departments seem to understand de-escalation and which don’t. There’s a lot of variance, but hopefully that’s changing. Which brings us back to where we started. Understanding how to defuse a crisis can really make the difference between life and death. But none of us are born knowing how to do it. That’s why I’m so grateful to get to learn from people like Matt and Dan,

S3: you know, as from my perspective on this conversation, Dan like I think we’ve I think there’s a ton of common threads between what we’re doing as a training provider and what you’re doing driving your bus and, you know, keeping people safe.

S1: You know what? I love knowing that I’m not alone, you know, fighting this fight and thinking this way. It’s great to talk with you.

S2: I highly recommend following bus driver Dan on Twitter. We’ll add a link to his account and to Matt’s de-escalation training program in the show notes. In the meantime, we want to know what you think of the advice you’ve heard in these two episodes about de-escalating conflict. One thing we didn’t get to is road rage, and we want to hear your advice. What helps you keep your cool when other drivers do something infuriating? Any advice for what works or what definitely doesn’t? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. That’s also where you can send us other difficult problems you can’t help solving. How use executive producer is Derek John Rosemary, Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown. Remixed by Mariah Jacob, our technical director, Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley.

S5: Thanks for listening.