The Art of De-Escalation
“You can diffuse a bomb, and there are not many people who are able, or willing, to diffuse a bomb.” Leo Anzoleaga, Draper and Kramer Mortgage Corp.
Following this observation about me from one of the best loan officers in the business about a recent collaboration that did not go as smoothly as anyone had planned or hoped, I paused to reflect on de-escalation. I have a lot of experience with transactions where people are highly invested and potentially highly emotional, so I have found it critical to be skilled in the arts of diffusing high-stress situations, keeping things on the rails, or, as Leo directly observed, “diffusing a bomb.” As I replayed several situations where settlements could have gone sideways, I was able to tease out best practices for de-escalation.
Rule #1: STOP THE BACK-AND-FORTH WRITTEN EXCHANGES AND PICK UP THE PHONE. Email, text, and instant messaging have created amazing efficiencies, but these forms of communication are not without risk. The speed at which we produce and process information often results in missing the message intended by electronic communication. Be involved and present enough to observe a breakdown in written communication as this can be the single most important place to intervene and de-escalate. In other words, pick up the phone and call if a question and answer are not CLEARLY understood after two email responses.
Rule #2: ASK QUESTIONS TO FULLY UNDERSTAND ANY QUESTIONS OR OBJECTIONS. I have found that an objection “on principle” is a zero-sum game that requires winners and losers, which is the antithesis of a successful transaction. When people devolve their position to principles, there usually is an unexpressed, unrecognized true issue. A party’s frustration is usually the result of a series of unmet expectations or a repeatedly unmet need. Recognize the legitimacy of the frustration and then look at the events leading up to the conflict and look for solutions to the unmet expectations which will result in the de-escalation of the crisis.
Rule #3: PROVIDE OPTIONS FOR A SOLUTION AND ALLOW EVERYONE TO SAVE FACE. Few conflicts happen because only one party is 100% at fault. It is difficult to walk back from a position staked out in frustration or anger. The energy that could and should be spent on resolving a conflict is spent on reinforcing positions and confirming everything wrong that the other side did. A good facilitator will refocus the parties on paths forward with proposals that explicitly borrow from the motivations and detractions already apparent and help the parties to reach mutual conclusions, addressing the problem while allowing everyone the opportunity to save face.
Rule #4: BE A SOLUTION PERSON AND NOT AN ENABLER. As a wise person once said to me, “Everyone wants to be heard and know what they said matters.” While true, it is a slippery slope from being an empathic listener and facilitator to an enabler who reinforces the aggrieved person’s version of the situation. Rule 4 overlaps Rule 3 in the solution part of the idea. Rule 4 focuses more on being aware of your communications and whether you are providing constructive listening or reinforcement of a position that is counterproductive.
Rule #5: EXPRESS GRATITUDE. Express gratitude for everyone’s participation in the solution instead of pretending challenges didn’t exist. I often say that just about anyone can facilitate an easy real estate settlement. I have built my reputation as a settlement attorney on my experience and knowledge, yet most of my relationships become deeper in times of difficulty or conflict. Rushing out the door and pretending challenges didn’t exist results in simmering dissatisfaction about the entire process. The recognition of everyone’s role in the solution and expressing the gratitude you have may not cause a complete turnaround of emotions. Still, it will give everyone a positive message of overcoming adversity and a reminder that a solution was found, and everyone could move forward.
Jeffrey M. Nowak has 20+ years of experience in the Virginia and DC real estate title industry. He is an educator and community leader in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Over the years, Jeff has conducted thousands of real estate settlements and has taught many of the area real estate professionals on continuing education topics and relevant real estate matters. In his free time, Jeff enjoys participating in triathlons, watching all Michigan State sporting events, and working in his yard. He is a married father of 3 boys.
Cobalt Settlements is a locally owned, independent title and settlement company headquartered in Arlington, VA. We are homeowners just like you. Whether it be a custom, spec home – new construction, previously owned, a lot purchase, single-family, condo, or townhouse, we have done it too. We know what it takes to get through this process successfully. We pay attention and watch the details to protect you in insuring and closing on your dream. It’s the Cobalt Way. We believe in being the best, not necessarily the biggest. We specialize in real estate closings in Virginia and the District of Columbia.