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Lots of people have asked me about how to deescalate people who are already escalated. Meaning, if you’re in a conversation and the other person starts to get defensive, lash out and raise their voice, what do you do?
Compassion is the key
It’s important to think about why the other person is resorting to their default way of reacting. If they’re lashing out, blaming, using hurtful language, or justifying their behavior and extremely riled up, what is it about the conversation that doesn’t feel safe to them? The minute we feel judged, blamed, attacked, misunderstood, or unheard is normally when our stress levels begin to rise and we start using hurtful language or letting our anger and frustration guide us.
Creating a safe environment
Then you want to think about what would make them feel comfortable in the interaction. How can you create an environment where they are able to drop their defenses and talk? Does that mean you don’t interrupt and you challenge yourself to sit and listen to what they’re saying, though you may not agree? Does that mean you let them know that you hear what they’re saying or that you see their point and not say anything after that? Or that you say, “You seem frustrated right now, or really upset, how I can I help you right now?” Or maybe something like, “when you speak this way I have a hard time understanding what you need from me, can we talk softly instead so we can work this through?” Or “when you talk to me this way it hurts, I know it’s not your intention, can we find another way to connect right now that feels good for the both of us?” Or something like, “Well, this isn’t going well. I think we can do better. Can we try again?” “Can you say that more gently?”
You can also non-judgmentally and without evaluation acknowledge the other person’s hurt. “I see that you’re hurt by what I said, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Or ” I realize I could have phrased what I said better, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.“ “You seem really disappointed right now, I can understand how you’re feeling that way.” “The last thing I want to do is hurt you or argue with you. I think we both got off track somehow. Let’s start again.” Giving the person your full support.
Giving the other person (and yourself!) space
If you’re unable to stay open to the other person or see them in the moment as someone you care for, respect, want to support (as you know they’re hurting if they are reacting this way), and you know that you aren’t able to keep the integrity of the conversation intact, as it will no longer be helpful, then it’s best for you to leave the interaction. Exit phrases could be, “We’re both upset right now, so let’s take some time and come back to this when we’ve had a chance to think and we can talk instead of argue.” “I’d like to take some time to think about what you’ve said and shared and come back to you tomorrow with my thoughts or how I’m seeing the situation.” “I understand you may want an answer from me right now but I need some time to think and get back to you.” “I’m not able to have this conversation the way you need me to right now, so I’d like to come back to it when I am able to.”
Rerouting your perspective
See if you can start seeing these moments when someone gets heated not as a personal attack, but as a sign that they are hurting, feeling misunderstood, and are in need of your support. And if there’s no way to continue the interaction in a kind, honest, and helpful way, then it’s your responsibility to take yourself out of the conversation.
Do you want to discover how to feel seen, heard, and understood in every conversation? Would you like to be able to respond thoughtfully rather than reacting impulsively during stressful interactions? Join Cynthia Kane for her upcoming retreat How to Communicate Like a Buddhist at the Art of Living Retreat Center May 14–16, 2021.
Cynthia Kane (BA, MFA) is the founder of the Intentional Communication Institute. She is dedicated to helping men and women change their communication routines so they feel in control of their words, and can express themselves in a way that makes them feel understood. She’s also a certified meditation and mindfulness instructor. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Yoga Journal.
This post first appeared on cynthiakane.com, and is reposted with permission from the author.