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Managing Difficult Behavior: Lowest Level of Intervention First


Tammy Lenski’s Conflict Zen Blog

When responding to someone else’s difficult behavior during conflict, a good rule of thumb is, “Use the lowest level of intervention first.” Here’s why this rule of thumb is useful for managing difficult behavior and a concrete example to illustrate.

When I’m in a difficult conversation, either as a participant or as a mediator (informal mediator or professional mediator), there are moments when the other person may do things that get under my skin or potentially derail the conversation.

When that happens, I prefer a response that attempts to match the level of problem behavior – or slightly “under-match” it. Conflict amplifies things and can make an otherwise shrugged-off behavior into one that sparks my over-reaction.

I don’t want to set off a figurative arms race if I can avoid it. One of the best ways I’ve found is to start with a very low-level response and work upward only if needed.

What constitutes “difficult behavior”?

A difficult behavior is a behavior that you, I, or another person in the conversation…(drumroll, please)…find difficult.

I know that seems a dodgy definition. But I can’t provide a list, as it will be inevitably incomplete.

And I resist the idea that because you or I find a behavior difficult, it means that it is difficult for everyone. There are things that drive you up the wall that would never register on my personal Richter scale. There are things that make me gnash my teeth that you might never even notice.

Why use the lowest level of intervention first?

When I’m a participant in a difficult conversation, upping the ante for them means upping the ante for myself. The more fairly treated and less judged they feel, the better the conversation will be for me. Judgment, as my colleague and friend Jeanne Cleary says so beautifully, is the great distancer.

When I’m mediating, here’s why I favor starting with the lowest level of intervention first:

My response sends a signal, so I’d better make sure it’s a helpful one. Heavy-handed responses signal that I don’t trust their ability to manage their own behavior. Calling someone out via a stronger-than-needed reaction can cause their face loss in front of the other participant(s). Everything just got messier as a result. Why make it harder and messier when I usually don’t have to?

Most of the time, it’s more effective to help people manage themselves than try to do it for them. Lower-level of interventions give people the space and chance to manage themselves. The vast majority of people can do just that if I give them the chance. And even when it turns out they need more help, most humans prefer to be treated as adult equals, not as errant school children.

Lighter interventions help rescue me from a misstep born of missing information. Intervening too strongly may turn into quite the blunder, for example, if I’ve misinterpreted or misdiagnosed the cause of their behavior. Cultural, ethnic, and geographical differences can mean that a behavior I or the other party find problematic is one the instigator doesn’t recognize as problematic. This doesn’t mean the problem vanishes, but it does give me relevant context for my response.

It’s good to avoid adding to the conflict. Intervening too strongly too soon risks me creating my own little difficult dynamic with that person. Mediating is hard enough without adding more conflict to the mix.

Starting at a lower level leaves me with more options available. If I start with a fairly high-level of intervention, I reduce the number of remaining intervention options available to me. This can escalate things quickly and cause a mediation to get needlessly more difficult. Why not make more of the tools in my toolbox available instead of starting with the hammer?

Example: Stopping someone from frequent interrupting

What does “lower level in intervention first” look like in practice? Imagine I’m mediating and one of the parties interrupts the other frequently. I can see the other party is irritated by this behavior. What do I do?

Certainly I need to do something before my own annoyance kicks in. Once it has, I risk starting at too high an intervention level because my own frustration is amplifying matters. Holding up a hand like a traffic cop and barking at them just isn’t the place to start.

Here’s how I might approach this, starting gently and increasing intervention level if each earlier action isn’t helping:

  1. I’d probably start by ignoring it. If the behavior is deliberate instead of part of their normal communication pattern, ignoring it may signal I’m not playing along. Sometimes this works like a charm.
  2. Next, I’d probably give a slight nod of acknowledgement in the direction of the interrupter and one finger held up in the “hang on for just a moment, ok?” position.
  3. Next, I might just hold my open-fingered hand out sideways, palm toward them, figuratively pushing the air back in a clearer “hang on” gesture.
  4. Next, I might look at my own actions. Am I letting the other person go on too long? Does the interrupter sense an imbalance in my attention? Do I need to make any adjustments myself?
  5. Next, I might repeat the earlier hand gesture to the interrupter and say to the speaker, “Could you repeat that? I want to make sure I hear it correctly.”
  6. Next I might pause the speaker, take one of my extra pens and pads of paper out, slide them over to the interrupter and say, “I need to hear what they’re saying but don’t want you to lose track of what you want to say while you wait. Use these to jot down your thoughts because I want to hear them in a moment.”

Most of these lighter, lower interventions work effectively. In the rare cases that they don’t, I will use these higher-level interventions:

  1. I might turn to the interrupter and say in a pleasant and firm tone, “I know you have things you want to add and I promise you I’ll give you that chance very soon. Can you hold off on jumping in for a minute longer?” This isn’t a comment, it’s a question, so I wait for the reply. If they say yes, I invite the interrupted speaker to go on. If they say no, I find out why and how to work with that.
  2. Alternatively, I might explain that I’m finding it difficult to track all the issues because of the interrupting. It might sound like this, in a pleasant and firm tone: “To do my best work for you, I need to make sure I understand both of you. When they don’t have a chance to finish, it’s hard for me to track all the issues. I know it’s really hard to bite your tongue if you’re hearing things you don’t agree with, but I need you to try harder to do just that. Ok?” Wait for the answer, as above.
  3. If all else fails, I’ll meet with both (all) parties privately. In the meeting with the interrupter, my agenda is to better understand what’s going on for them that’s sparking the interrupting, help them understand why the interrupting is a problem, and plan together how to make it stop.

Common questions

Do I have to go through so many levels of intervention if the behavior is clearly a problem? No. This was one example. But I do recommend erring on a gentler note rather than a policing note, for the reasons provided earlier.

How quickly should I move through the intervention levels? There’s no one answer to this. The factors that determine the answer include frequency of the behavior, intensity of the behavior, reactions of others in the difficult conversation or mediation, and your own reaction to the behavior.

Does this apply only to mediation? No. I take a similar approach in my own conversations whenever I can keep my wits about me well enough to pull it off.

You’re being too nice. I wouldn’t put up with crap like that. To each his own. As a mediator, I see my job as helping people manage behaviors that seem to be getting in the way, without adding to the damage the conflict has already inflicted. If I have to step on one side of the line or the other, I’m good with erring toward nice. It works far more often than it doesn’t work.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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