Building Goodwill at the Table – Part 3 – Deescalation

In Part 3, we’ll discuss deescalation techniques that can help in a bind!

Deescalate tense situations

You’re pretty likely to encounter someone who is having a bad day, or has another stressor in their life, or is eager to take out their anger or anyone else.  If you are in the process of growing, poor teaching skills can result in anger from others.  Cheating tends to engender strong feelings of injustice in our society and the perception that cheating is occurring, whether true or not, can really rub people the wrong way.  Sometimes it is as simple as a die roll not going a person’s way and a simple misunderstanding of probability will set someone off.  How do you deal with a frustrated or angry player that is not only a threat to the fun of themselves, but those around them?

1) You have to remain calm

Next time you want a company to correct an error, do me a favor.  Be nice. I don’t care how frustrated or angry you are, and especially if it is your first try, be nice.  Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse time:  “If somebody gets in your face and calls you a <expletive>, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.”

Silly?  Maybe.  But it’s just damn good advice.  It works.  I promise you that if you practice “be nice” when dealing with customer service reps for companies, seven times out of ten you’ll get a benefit of some kind.  That’s better than half of the time.  Its certainly better than zero, which is pretty close to what people get when they’re mean.  You have to understand the customer service rep.  They have a company policy to follow.  But they are just as tired and worn down from their job as you, and they deal with crappy people constantly.  So, when you’re nice, you hit a little part of their brain that says:  “Holy crap, someone being nice for a change!  I’m going to help them.”  Sometimes the company policies are too tight to allow it.  A lot of the time they are not.

The same is true of teaching games in tense situations.  Level-headed, sincere, positive behavior is addictive.  It spreads like wildfire.  You can completely “180” a person simply by being nice.  I’ve done it a hundred times and you can too.  Teaching games may not be your job.  But if you take Swayze’s advice, and don’t take it personal, you’ll successfully deescalate most of the time.

2) Focus on the facts

There are manipulative game players.  There are manipulative people.  A manipulative individual will attempt to prey on someone’s emotions to get their way.  They are experts at pulling on heartstrings or stretching facts, or outright lying, or some combination of those three.  How do you deescalate someone who makes a big stink to swing a game in their favor?

Facts are the enemy of the manipulator.  Paying attention to what is happening in your games can help to arm you with the truth.  When the manipulator attempts to twist what happened to their advantage, remembering specific details about the game can help to shut them down.  Slowly and clearly clarifying what actually happened, and combining it with your knowledge of rules and resources can help to shut down the hissy fit.

The other instance where facts are especially important for deescalation is when dealing with a gamer who is prone to call “cheater” at the first sign of confusion or a perceived injustice.  The problem is usually that someone is missing a step of a series of game mechanics and projects their misunderstanding or confusion on other people.  This doesn’t make them a bad person.  It means that their instigating factor must be recognized and diffused if you want the fun to continue.

3) Remind them of the goal – of playing games in general

The ultimate goal of any game is to have fun and enjoy the company of others.  Games have their own mechanics, to be sure, but intellectual challenge is one of many things that different gamers enjoy.  Some like the rush of coming close to victory just as much or more than the victory itself.  Some like to see how far they can get facing insurmountable odds.  Some gamers like to challenge game designers and find ways to “break” mechanics in games and/or repair them.  Some people like the setting of the game much more than the mechanics.  Some people like being with others.  

With dozens more examples of the variants of reasons why people like games, it is important for a game leader to keep the thread that holds all of those together in perspective.  People are doing this for enjoyment, and anything that threatens anyone’s enjoyment is a problem at the table that should be addressed.  That doesn’t mean stifling other people’s opinions or feelings.  It means that sometimes it helps to remind people why they are there in the first place.  That can get lost in the excitement.

4) Validate logical feelings and find a common ground

An effective deescalation strategy is to acknowledge the specific thing that the listener is hearing is the problem so that the “escalated” individual can see that someone else understands what they are thinking and going through.  Sometimes it really isn’t the specific problem that is the real problem, but that the person feels like they stand alone amongst others.  The common phrasing is: “I hear that you are saying that you…”, followed by describing what you heard by actively listening.  You are not twisting their words or thinking about your “rebuttal” to their arguments.  You are merely stating what you honestly hear them saying back to them.  Active listening builds trust.  It is validation to the other person that you are listening.  You are trying to learn what the other person is thinking, not to defeat them intellectually.

Another way to deescalate through validation is to share common frustrations with the other person.  “That really frustrates me too” is an example phrase, followed by a repeat of what you heard that was their concern.  Explain the details of what you don’t like and maybe even offer a suggestion for improvement.  Is it something that can wait to the next game?  When people know that they are not the only one that is frustrated and someone is looking out for their concerns.  It helps to confront problems with mutual agreement.

5) Sometimes agree to be wrong, even if you are not

You’re correct!  Is it worth ruining the game over?  I’m not saying you should enable people by encouraging them to get away with poor behavior.  Sometimes the behavior or situation is so frustrating that it might be better to allow a mechanics change in the short term and then advocate for a different position later.   You don’t have to publically say that someone is correct when they are not.  You can say:  “Let’s play it your way and we can discuss it later.”  That is usually enough to diffuse the situation.

6) It’s never worth it to let someone leave upset

It takes guts to put yourself out there and play for the long game.  But the long game is the ultimate goal.  You don’t want someone to never play a specific game or any games with you at all.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who is “right” and who is not, or whether someone has a logical reason for being correct.  That also doesn’t mean that you should enable someone and allow them to behave poorly.  Always shoot for an outcome that finds a positive angle that someone can walk away happy with.

In summary

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about ways to bring goodwill to the gaming table.  These certainly aren’t comprehensive.  You may have your own techniques that you’ve had success with.  Share them in the comments.  I’m hoping my experiences, training and perspectives might make your gaming times a little happier and more stable by adapting them to your game environments!


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