De-Escalation: Easy in Theory. In Practice? Kinda Hard.

October 13, 2023

This blog post originally appeared in ARTT's Trust Issues newsletter on October 13, 2023. Sign up for our email newsletter to get updates in your inbox twice a month.

Election workers in the U.S. are apparently quitting in droves. Issue One, a cross-partisan organization, reports that roughly 40 percent of chief local election officials across eleven western states have resigned since the November 2020 election. That’s a lot of loss, if you consider the institutional knowledge and experience they carried with them.

What struck me about this news was how emotional and intense election work seems to have become. Election workers speak of threats of violence, hateful messages, and harassment both in-person and online. Stories of battles with constituents and others seem commonplace and have produced a tremendous sense of fatigue and burnout.

Take the sentiments of the clerk-recorder of Lyon County, Nevada: Despite working for more than 20 years at this position, Nikki Bryan decided not to re-run for election. “I can’t fix the anger,” Bryan told the Christian Science Monitor last year, “I’ve tried.”

The idea of “fixing the anger,” or at least lowering the temperature to reduce stress and burnout among election workers, got me thinking about de-escalation, which is one of the nine response modes we focus on at the ARTT project. Research around de-escalation has been an area of critical investigation in several different fields. Think of situations where there is a high-stakes standoff with someone who is threatening others: conflict resolution is clearly one field. Within health, practitioners in nursing and in psychology have long explored the practice but this also happens within policing, sociology, and in business research (consider the times you may have experienced de-escalation after you have expressed dissatisfaction as a customer).

Across different fields, de-escalation methods do bear a lot in common. De-escalation methods can for example lean on other response modes such as empathize and listen, but also employ some other points such as personalizing or humanizing the exchange.

Two things struck me when thinking about de-escalation. First, there isn’t a lot of literature, yet, about how to de-escalate on social media — most of the research is about face-to-face interactions.

Second, the knowledge collected in these studies doesn’t really go towards answering a couple of harder questions around how this strategy might work for elections workers — and citizens — in practice.

Methods can explain how de-escalation might be accomplished, and some studies explore whether or not it’s effective (measurement around this is a hard thing to do). But what about the question of how do we, in practice, do the work around de-escalation, such as trying not to judge another’s anger or fear? And there is the question of why we would feel motivated to take on the responsibility and effort of lowering the temperature – especially hard to do when someone is literally or virtually screaming in your face.

There are a few answers here that may differ depending, for example, on whether there’s bad faith. But in terms of both how and why we might want to add de-escalation to our toolkits, I think that one answer is clear: Methods that help us introduce ourselves to one another, try to imagine each other’s circumstance, and bring our humanity to the exchange are reminders of our real need for one another. Each person belongs to communities, regions, and countries that we care about, and we have an effect on each other.

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