Defusing Difficult Situations: The Unexpected Response

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Michael H. Smith, Ph.D.

We’ve all left uncomfortable and even angry situations and later thought: “I wish I had said X,” a stylish riposte to an unwanted or unwarranted remark. A story about Winston Churchill admirably illustrates the skill we wish we had at times. Seeing Churchill drunk at her social gathering, the host (allegedly Lady Astor) commented: “Mr. Churchill you are drunk, you are horribly drunk, you are exceedingly drunk.” Upon which Churchill replied: “Indeed, Madame. And you are ugly. Tomorrow, I shall be sober.”

Such repartee might earn us style points and may even make us believe we’ve effectively ended the situation, however, such comments don’t resolve underlying issues and usually won’t build or repair relationships. So how can we better respond to uncertain or unwanted comments? How can we quickly and effectively diffuse difficult situations and start problem solving?

An important tool is called an unexpected response. These are responses that the other person doesn’t see coming and that will quickly stop a negative conversation and steer it toward a calmer problem solving focus.

Unexpected Response 1: Humor

One such response is humor. A number of years ago, after the end of a 20-year marriage, I returned to my first house. I had lovingly remodeled it as a single man in my 30s and then had rented it for the 20 years of my marriage. I needed to occupy it again. At the time, I was a much older man and now encumbered by some serious baggage consisting of two disgruntled teenagers.

After a protracted battle to remove the tenant, I inspected the property with the property manager. After briefly listening to my bemoaning how bad the house looked after 20 years, and how my “perfect home” had deteriorated, he directly reminded me “I bet you don’t look like you did 20 years ago either.”

This caused a startled response from me—a rueful laugh and a much more productive discussion on how to make the house livable.

This is an example of humor that worked. It also might have backfired. Humor is a high-risk, high-gain tactic. So it’s critical if you use this tool to know both your humor and that of your audience.

If your humor tends to be sarcastic, very droll, obscure, or cutting, it’s best not to use it. If the other person is very serious, not familiar with English idioms (if you’re speaking English), significantly older or younger or in a different place in the hierarchy than you are, it’s best to reconsider.

It’s safest to laugh at yourself. Even if you don’t believe you’re at fault, a funny, self-deprecating remark can reduce tension. An unexpected funny response could be:

“Wow, that was dumb”
“I must have had brainlock that day”
“Send me home without pay”

It will usually get a laugh and, since you’ve “cut yourself down” a bit, the person may be willing to accept your seeming mea culpa and use it as a basis for a reasonable conversation.

Unexpected Response 2: An Apology

Two statements that are rarely used are: “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.” Either of these two comments, if said reasonably early in the conversation, are likely to cause the other person to pause for a moment. It’s not what people usually hear right away. In order for the above comments to resolve an issue, some additional comments must follow such as what you are sorry about or why you are wrong, plus a credible promise to take specific corrective action so the offending behavior doesn’t repeat.

And it’s important how you frame the apology. Don’t avoid responsibility by using phrases such as “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I said” vs. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” The first phrase implies that the other person has a problem because most people wouldn’t be hurt by what happened. The second phrase takes full responsibility for what you did, intentional or not.

Agree with Them
Go through the issues and agree with all that you can agree with. List them slowly and specifically. Make it seem as if there is a lot of agreement that has not been given proper notice.

Leave out those issues still to be discussed. When they are raised say that you’re willing to work out the rest and that you’re pleased that you’re off to such a good start.

Say You’d Never Intentionally Hurt the Individual 
Appeal to the person’s emotion and your relationship with him or her. This works well if there is genuine caring and an unusual, if perceived hurtful, lapse in behavior.

Unexpected Response 3: Distraction

Distractions are a last resort and are used when emotions are running extremely high and you want to sidetrack a volatile interaction. Upon entering a home with a significant family dispute in progress, and with no hope of getting the parties to be reasonable, I asked them if anyone smelled smoke. Immediately, everyone started checking the house for sources of the possible fire.

After five to ten minutes of searching, we concluded that I had probably smelled car exhaust or a neighbor’s chimney. At this point everyone was calmer and could talk about various problems in a calmer manner.

This intervention can rarely be used with the same person twice. And if used in an organization, word will get out if you use it as a regular practice; but at those times when things are very hot and you’re out of options, it can be useful.

Other distractions that may help:

  1. How’s your sick (mother, child)? Someone’s usually sick in a family. And even if no one is sick, you can claim that’s what you heard and you thought it important enough to check it out.
  2. Did you see that (point at something outside)? It helps with this approach to have a window with activity going on outside. Walk toward the action and comment on what happened, for example, strange car, suspicious person, and so on.

We can’t all be as clever as Churchill. But we can learn to laugh at ourselves, genuinely apologize, and agree with some of what others have to say. We can even change the subject if real harm may occur. These tools will serve you better for bringing about workplace harmony


About the Author(s)

Michael H. Smith, Ph.D. is an Oakland, California-based organization consultant who specializes in teaching organizations how to resolve conflicts. For more information: [email protected], or