Can certain types of command help to calm conflict?

Research shows that at moments of difficulty conflict managers should focus on clear instructions to gain the best response. So, what are the magic words are that will help de-escalate a potentially violent situation?

We can gain some insights into the “do’s” and “don’ts” of what to say from research reported in the 2008 Law Enforcement Executive Forum (Schwartzkopf et al, 2008.)


To help determine the effects of certain phrases, researchers divided instructions into command types:

  • Regular: “Put your hands on your head”, “Get out of the car”, “Move”
  • Stop: “Stop shooting”, “Stop that”
  • Don’t: “Don’t move”, “Don’t do that”
  • Indirect: “Hitting her won’t solve anything”, “There’s nothing to see here”
  • Question: “Can you put your hands behind your back”, “Could you calm down?”
  • Interview: “What is your name?”, “What is going on?”

The results of the “stop”, “don’t” and other “negative” command types were combined into a summary category, mentioned below as “exclusionary”. 


Most commands were interview type commands, and compliance was greatest (91%) for these, possibly because they are less “confrontational”. Interestingly, there was no significant difference in compliance between regular (48%) and exclusionary commands (50%) – so in terms of overall outcome it didn’t make much difference if instructions were telling the person what to do, or whether they focused on what not to do.

However, it did make a difference in terms of speed of response. Only 55% of exclusionary commands led to immediate compliance (defined as within 10 seconds), while other categories were all higher than 87%.

This research does provide evidence to support the view that conflict managers should focus on giving clear instructions at the moment of potential conflict. Clear commands seem to be associated with more rapid compliance as does giving positive command. Telling people what not to do seemed to be associated with slower compliance. One interesting element of this research is that compliance was much higher for interview type commands than for any other category; perhaps indicating that engaging the subject to gain information from them, rather than on giving them instructions on what to do can be beneficial in calming situations.

Whilst this research is useful, what is said in a conflict situation should not detract from a focus on preventive strategies, as well as other elements of communication. For example, this research focused only on the verbal channels of communication, while we know that the non-verbal (body language) and para-verbal (the way in which we use words, such as tone, pace, volume) channels have a massive influence on the message value of our communication. The building of relationships and environmental set up can play a big role in encouraging positive behaviours and in fact this is the area that seems to make the biggest difference.

Posted by Maybo on June 6, 2012


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