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Use Communication to De-Escalate Tense Situations


February 25, 2019

I recently spoke with a group of lawyers about the “soft skills” we wished we learned in law school. We discussed things like managing people, technology best practices, and project management skills. Yet, the skill mentioned most was communication.

Think about it. Lawyers communicate constantly. However, many times this communication can be adversarial and difficult.

Most people seek lawyers to help them deal with problems. For some people the problem can be life-altering, such as a divorce. Emotions run high, which can negatively impact conversations between the client and their attorney, the attorney and opposing counsel, etc.

Good news, there are easy ways to de-escalate a conversation. The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism regularly trains judges and lawyers on ways to handle these difficult situations.

Here are three strategies for de-escalating negative conversations:

  • Listen

We all know speaking and listening are essential for effective communication, but the type of listening I’m referring to is “active listening.” Active listening is not just hearing someone speak. Rather, it’s listening and responding in a way that allows for mutual understanding. According to the United States Institute of Peace, active listening is an important first step in defusing a tense situation and finding a solution to a problem.

To practice active listening, try the following:

  • Start from a stance of curiosity and maintain attentive body language. Try to dial down your internal voice and remain interested in what the speaker says.
  • Ask questions to understand the speaker’s perspective. Ask why they believe the issue is important.
  • Paraphrase and reflect. Use your own words to convey your understanding of what the speaker said.
  • Summarize and restate the main points of the conversation. Try to reach a place of common understanding with the speaker.


  • Provide Feedback

We can’t escape being asked to provide feedback. However, there’s a technique that can make feedback more effective and less contentious. It’s as easy as changing the word “but” to “yes, and” or just “and.”
Research shows our brains need five pieces of positive thought to neutralize one that’s negative. If you provide positive feedback followed by “but” and a negative statement, the listener is less likely to focus on the positive.
For example:

  • Negative: The first five pages of this brief are great, BUT the writing and organization deteriorate after that.
  • Positive: The first five pages of this brief are great, AND it would be great to see that same quality reflected in the last five pages.
  • Negative: I think your draft memo is excellent, BUT you didn’t cite People v. Smith.
  • Positive: I think your draft memo is excellent, AND I think you should include a discussion of People v. Smith.
  • Reframe

If we could only avoid difficult people and conversations. Alas, the real word doesn’t afford us that luxury. However, we can navigate tough conversations by reframing what others say.

Reframing means translating the essence of what another person says into more helpful concepts. The goal isn’t to usurp the conversation; rather, to help it move beyond the speaker’s raw emotional state. Here’s an example:

  • If you hear: “We’re in this mess and it’s your fault.” Try reframing it to: “Let’s talk about what caused us to get to this point and figure out how to move forward.”

We can’t predict our next difficult conversation. However, implementing these simple strategies will enable you to de-escalate a tense situation rather than adding more fuel to the fire.