Conflict De-escalation: The Broken Record

One method of de-escalating a conflict is an old technique called “the broken record”. It can be used when somebody is being confrontational and is intent on picking an argument with you, which you don’t want to get sucked into.

Just to be clear, this is primarily for use for verbal altercations, which have the potential to escalate, rather than when somebody is trying to actively pick a physical fight (though it does have some applications there too). The idea is basically to repeat a simple phrase over and over, rather than responding to the other persons verbal attacks. You answer like a broken record stuck in the groove (might be before some people’s time for those born in the digital era 🙂 )

In most cases if you try to answer the verbal attacks the aggressor will simply try to shoot down your answers and come back with more and more verbal attacks. Often he/she will have no interest in discussing the matter and finding any resolution, they simply want to belittle and/or intimidate you. So why waste your time and energy explaining your point to somebody who has no interest in reasoning and no interest in listening other than to find a new line of attack? They are only interested in looking for more ammunition from whatever you say to use against you. So why give it to them?

A recent incident reminded me of this. Whilst driving through a roundabout, myself and a car behind me were both taking the opposite exit and going straight ahead. He tried to pass me on the roundabout and when I continued straight ahead he felt that I’d cut him up. He tooted at me and not wanting any trouble I ignored him. Then he continued to drive too close to my car in an unsafe manner, trying to intimidate me.

I saw in my mirror a very young lad who looked like a strong gust of wind would blow him over. He gesticulated several times angrily with his hands and I ignored him. There was also a young lady beside him.

When we came to the next roundabout, I just figured that this was not worth it so I made a complete circle on the roundabout so that he could get ahead of me and be on his way. This seemed to work and away he he went.

However, when he realised that I was now behind him, he pulled into a lay-by to wait for me, then pulled in behind me when I passed. I kept an eye on him as he followed me for several miles down the road. When we reached the city I pulled of into a side road where I was working and stopped to check the map. He followed me into the side road, passed me, turned round then drew up next to me with his window down. I wound my window down.

The conversation went something like this:

Young driver: “What’s your problem then”?

Me: “What do you mean”?

Young driver: “Cutting me up on that roundabout”.

After a brief explanation/discussion, it quickly became clear that he was a boy trying to act how he erroneously thought men behaved. I’d guess that he was trying to impress the young girl who sat silently looking very uncomfortable throughout the whole incident.

Me: “OK, you’re a big man, you’ve made your point. Now move along”.

Young driver: “It’s not about that. You ought to learn how to f***ing drive”!

I could have pointed out that I’d been driving since before he was born, that I’d driven all over this country and on the continent (where they drive on the other side of the road), that I’d driven big vans/small lorries and hardly ever had any accidents at all. But in his youthful wisdom he’d have just rubbished all that and probably told me that I whatever I’d done before, I was a bad driver now or that I should know better! So why waste my breath and give him more ammunition.

Me: “Just move along”.

Young driver: “You just can’t admit that you’re wrong”!

I could of explained/argued that I was not in the wrong and corrected him, but he wouldn’t have accepted any of it and just argued that I was in the wrong. So why waste my breath?

Me: “Just move along”.

Young driver: “You’re just a knob” (British slang for part of the male anatomy).

I could have returned the insult, because if he got physical he was clearly no match for me. But he would have continued to give even more abuse; then what do I do, continue hurling yet more and more abuse back at him?

Me: “Just move along”.

At this point, the young driver did move along. He probably felt satisfied that he’d given some older guy a piece of his mind (not that he had much to spare) and impressed the young lady with how tough he was.

OK, with hindsight there was a couple of things that perhaps that I could of done better. I could have simply apologised right at the very start, even though I didn’t think that I was in the wrong. It’s only a matter of pride, but it saves time and energy. I could have probably left out the comment about “OK, you’re a big man, you’ve made your point”, as that was unnecessarily provocative. But then it’s always easy with hindsight. And yes, I admit that I did let my pride get in the way a bit!

But the most important thing is, I just kept repeating a simple phrase in a nonchalant manner so that no matter how hard he tried, he was not able to escalate the confrontation or use anything else against me. He very quickly ran out of things to say. Wanting to beat the other person in an argument is only a matter of ego and as martial artists we should be above that. I could probably have argued with him for a good half hour. I might even of won the argument, but so what if I did! How would it improve my life by spending a lot of time and energy getting one up on a cocky young lad with no real life experience? The best result for me was simply to get rid of him quickly and efficiently without taking up too much time or energy and the broken record was the best way.

Whatever phrase you use will depend on the situation. It just has to be something that they can’t take anything from and use against you to escalate things.

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