The Six-Step Method to Deescalate Tension and Improve Dialogue

February 2, 2023 - (4 min read)

We all experience the increasing toxicity of our politics. Threats on social media or in the grocery store. The colleague who mutters under their breath or fails to say what they really mean in public. Vicious public comment at the table. We often leave these situations unresolved and play the scene on repeat with stress coursing through our system. This shows up in undesired ways. As leaders, we are in a leveraged position to model the behavior we seek and heal our politics.

It’s easier than you might think. Follow this six-step-method and be empowered to reverse the trend. Results for your community will increase. When you are met with hostility:

1. Mind the Gap

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Viktor E. Frankl

Upon receiving incoming hostility, wait and listen deeply without thinking of your response. Let the speaker fully finish. Once they finish count to 5 in your head or take three deep breaths. Don’t worry, they will wait, and the silence will allow the respondent to settle and help them hear your words.

2. Ask a Question

Focus on the comment that triggered you most and inquire to clarify. A helpful prompt is “What I heard you say is ___, by this do you mean ____?”

3. Demonstrate Understanding

With your inquiry resolved and a dialog established, summarize the speaker’s perspective and rationale. Then ask, “am I understanding this correctly?”

4. Honor the Speaker

With shared understanding confirmed, thank the speaker from a genuine place. An example is “I appreciate you coming forward and sharing your valuable time with us and respect your care for our community.” If there are elements of their comments you agree with, honor those, “I agree that _____.” Seek commonality no matter how small.

5. Share your Why

Now it is time for you to respond. Be honest, frank, transparent and share your rationale. “I hear what you are saying, I have taken it into account. With that…I believe this because _____.” Ask them if they can understand your perspective, if not agree. This will not always be possible. No matter what, thank them for engaging openly and honestly with you.

6. Follow Up

Find their contact information and thank them for their time at a later date. Close by opening the door to engage with you further on their terms.

Write these six bullets on a notecard and keep it in front of you at Council meetings to increase the likelihood of practicing this skill several fold.

It is this easy and it will take patience and perseverance. Don’t expect to get it right on the first or tenth try. Reactivity is normal and long entrenched patterns take time to unlearn. That’s OK, you’re human, so appreciate that in yourself. In practicing these six steps you will lower your stress, anxiety and burnout. You will provide a fruitful framework for others to follow. Your community will heal – slowly- and the results you seek in policy and outcomes will follow as a byproduct.

This is part of our work at the Elected Leaders Collective, an organization dedicated to ‘Healing our Politics”. We do mental health and well-being training for elected officials, staff and other mission-driven public sector workers. To learn more, visit us online at, book a free discovery call, join one of our cohorts, or book a workshop or retreat for you council or organization.

Local Democracy Initiative Incivility Tracker

Have you experienced harassment, threats or violence as a local official? Confidentially report your experience using our online self-reporting tool. With your help, NLC can bring greater attention to this dangerous trend and generate solutions. 

About the Author

Skippy Mesirow, Founder of the Elected Leaders Collective and Aspen City Councilperson