Deescalating Verbal Conflicts

The following Document contains information originally provided by Chris Tucker

0. Why should we listen to this guy?

My name is Chris Tucker, I’m an L1 who works at a card shop in Athens, GA. I also work customer service for the appended-to-the-card-store mismanaged sports and fishing shipping company and have a B.S. in Psychology from UGA. The result of all this is I know a lot about turning someone from an angry person with a problem into your new best friend

1.What do I mean when I say verbal conflict? Where and when do we encounter it in our role as Judges? Why would we want to de-escalate this? It sounds like a good thing!

A verbal conflict occurs any time we use words to solve problems where the interests of two parties are incongruent or opposed. What a verbal conflict means to us in a functional sense differs depending on the context, but since we’ll focus on what it means for us as Judges we can say that they matter because they can impede the progress of a game and by extension the tournament, and poor resolution can make players unhappy. Our job is to make sure the tournament proceeds smoothly and the players have fun, so we need to get good resolution out of these bad situations. We encounter verbal conflicts in our interactions with players and other judges, as well as at work and play. <Attendees can share instances of when people got up in there grill at tournaments or work.>

Every judge call is the result of some kind of disagreement. That these disagreements are verbal is a good thing. If one party gets too worked up, though, it can be impossible to make any headway and the interaction will stall along with the whole tournament. What’s worse, in frustration someone might say or do something that would necessitate their disqualification, and our goal is to make sure the tournament operates smoothly and players have fun. Getting DQ’d isn’t fun, and advancing a player because his opponent was DQ’d isn’t as good for the tournament as advancing a player who won. The reason we bring a player back down from a high level of emotional intensity and excitement is so we can solve the problem before we get to this point.

2. What should we do to calm a player down?

<Attendees can throw some ideas around>

Approach the situation with the right mindset. Judges have the best job in the world because there are a few things that are true about us that are almost never true about anyone else in the world you’ll ever meet.

1. We are here to help. 2. We do not care who is right, only what is right. 3. Our job is to make sure everyone has fun.

<open up these points for discussion and elaboration, where necessary>

Recognize the player’s grievance. Even if the player is wrong, you can convey to them that you understand what they are trying to communicate and know how they feel. A lot of the frustration a player feels during a difficult situation is the result of them feeling like they aren’t being understood. If you can help to dispel that feeling, you can quickly reach a point where you can start to help.

Inform the player of their options. People feel better about a situation when they feel like they are in control and don’t feel cornered. Understanding the options available shows the player that they may not get what they want out of this situation, but they are still in control of themselves and have choices.

Use your body language.Some things to watch for when interacting are crossed arms, crossed legs, and upturned palms. The first two are associated with the feeling of being attacked and not wanting to listen. It is defensive. Upturned palms held away from the body are associated with frustration and feeling overwhelmed. Here’s some psychology for you; emotion is excitement, the end. Your brain then uses the stuff it senses to try to understand that excitement and the explanation it comes up with determines everything else about how you feel. This means that it takes in cues from, among other things, your own body language. We can’t grab a guy and make him assume better, more open body language, but people instinctively mirror one another. They especially mirror people they like or that they think will try to help them, so we can use this to our advantage by assuming good, open, relaxed body language. Our arms are by our side, our feet are spaced comfortable about shoulder’s width apart, and our posture is good. When we gesture with our hands, our palms are up. By tricking the excited person into assuming a relaxed and confident posture, we can help them to feel relaxed and confident.

Use the player’s name. Most people like hearing other people say their name. Scientists have proved this is because people are narcissistic jerks (I made that up). It also shows that you recognize the person as a person and not a problem, and the basic philosophy of this approach is that if you show a person you care, they’ll work with you.

If someone was “wrong” about something and they try to save face, let them. Everyone might know full well that the player in question didn’t know how Arc Trail interacts with planeswalkers, but as long as any applicable penalty is marked correctly, if they want to say they misspoke or misheard, that’s fine. Be sure they know the right answer and then get the game moving.
3. What don’t we do?

<Audience participation. Yay!>

We do not tell anyone to calm down. Telling someone to calm down implies they aren’t behaving appropriately. It is the kind of thing you tell a child (and it doesn’t work then, either). Remember, we aren’t here to be right or prove someone wrong. Our goals are specific and we checked our ego at the door. The way to get what we are after is by validating the emotion of the worked up player and then getting them to cooperate with our solution for the problem.

Do not lie. It may at times seem expedient to fib, stretch, or bend the truth, but especially in a tournament setting whatever misunderstanding you create will crop up in short order and will be even more difficult than the current problem. Even if it’s the kind of lie that precludes that possibility, we’re judges. Our entire system is set up on the basic premise that, however human and error prone we may be, we are always honest. This is why when we swing by a legacy table and say, “Deck Check,” players say, “Here’s $2,000, total stranger, you go ahead and disappear into this crowded room and meet me back here in ten minutes, ok?.”

Avoid negative body language. Just as we can get players to mimic our open and relaxed posture, we can inadvertently encourage them to take on a closed and unreceptive posture that can, thanks to their emotional feedback loop, make them more difficult to help.

Don’t use accusatory or blame-oriented language. <Audience provides examples of both> Remember, we don’t care who’s right, only what’s right. If you have to point out an error on the part of a player, discuss it as an understandable misunderstanding. Use collective pronouns like “we” and “our” instead of “you” and “your.” Mention that you have encountered that particular misunderstand frequently (because unless this is your first time judging, you doubtlessly have).

Don’t drag it out. Being wrong is embarrassing. Once the situation is resolved, get the game moving and put the problem in the past.

4. The Gray Area

Sometimes tactics we can keep in our toolbox are situationally useful. Some of these can, if used at the wrong time, make a situation worse. None of them are necessary, but they can be fast or especially effective when used well, so it’s good to know about them. <We’ve probably talked about some already, so recap>

Humor is like the charbelcher of conflict resolution. It works and you win or it misses and you lose. It’s a bad way to lead off, but after you establish some rapport and if you notice open body language, consider this option. Humor rapidly disperses tension. To be sure you don’t accidentally make a joke at the expense of a player, make a joke that obviously and unmistakably makes fun of yourself or something about yourself. As an added bonus, self-deprecating humor is associated with humility and humility with likability, so this also makes you more likeable, which makes the person more likely to cooperate.

Physical contact is hugely risky and is tied up in so much junk that it is practically not an option for us as judges. Absolutely hands off are angry people and members of the opposite sex. Physical contact is a way to show you empathize with a person and care about them, but we have a tremendous number of verbal tools for achieving this end already. This is a good option for friends you know well and see often (not acquaintances you recognize from two or three area tournaments). Outside of that specific application, the risks outweigh the benefits.
5. My two favorite tricks

The deflection phrase. Someone says something hurtful, stupid, wrong, or aggressive, and there you are holding the hot potato of continuing the conversation. Man, it’d be hard not to either offend this someone or look as bad as they do. Enter the deflection phrase. A deflection phrase signals that you heard what a person said without agreeing or disagreeing. My go-to is “I hear ya’.” Depending on where you are in the world, “A-yeah,” or “I appreciate that” or “I see” or even a thoughtful “Hrmm…” can work, too. These work best if you mean it. When someone tells me that I’m short, pedantic, and my sideburns aren’t even and as a result I am a bad person, I say, “I hear ya’” and I mean it. It doesn’t mean I agree that I am a bad person, and for the record my sideburns aren’t uneven, that’s my ears, but it means I get where they are coming from. I acknowledge that they are mad, potentially at me, and I am listening.

Say “and” instead of “but” after acknowledging a person’s feelings and before explaining what you need them to do in spite of it. It sounds stupid because it bears only a tenuous relationship to proper grammer. “But” registers as a negation of everything you just said, though. It’s like you just listed a whole bunch of stuff that’s really important to the other person, and then said none of it matters. <Audience practices saying “and” instead of “but”>

How do you get the floor so you can work your newfound mojo if you can’t interrupt a person by telling them to calm down? You say, “Woah, hang on, let me tell you what you told me to make sure I understand so I can help.” At this point, they cannot argue because you said you want to help and you want to understand them, and the only reason they are erupting words at you is to achieve that very end. Then you tell them what the problem is in sample, abstract terms that focus more on the emotional aspects of the situation than the mechanical parts. Remember, this is mostly just to get them to understand you want to help and to get them to shut up for a second so they don’t work themselves up into a frenzy. The bonus is that you can often simplify the problem and get everyone to agree on a solution in one maneuver. This also works well if two players are talking across the table at each other instead of taking turns talking to you. If the situation is unclear but the players are verbally effusive, you can use the same opening and then ask them to tell you what happened chronologically. Make it clear they will each get a chance to talk.

6. Recap and Suggested reading

Sometimes people get worked up and reluctant to co-operate. We fix that and then fix the problem. We do this by genuinely empathizing with the person, making it clear we are there to help. We avoid using triggering words and phrases, even innocuous-seeming things like “you” and “but” can, in this context, excite a player. After everyone is mellowed out, we tell the players clearly what we’re going to do and what their options are, and then we get the game moving again so they don’t have to dwell on the unpleasantness of heated discussion.

The ideas we’ve talked about are largely from Verbal Judo, a book by George Thompson. This thing should be required reading for judge work and it’s a fun, quick read weighing in at under 200 pages of anecdotes from Dr. Thompsons work as a police officer and a crotchety old guy. The ideas that weren’t borrowed from Verbal Judo are either basic Psychology stuff of complicated Psychology stuff that I will here credit to Dr. Lenny Martin.