Skip to content

Could You Talk Your Way Out Of A Knife Fight?

March 17, 2014

Elder Bliss! Elder Bliss, wake up! This guy has a question.

The Chicago city bus belched it’s way up Halstead avenue. Jolted out of my nap, I turned to find myself face-to-face with a very angry Native American.

I was 20 years old and a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons. I was one of those guys you see in the white shirts and ties with name tags that all say “Elder.” We always travelled in pairs. I worked specifically with deaf people. My companion, Elder Rice was deaf, but he could talk and read lips. He’d been having a “conversation” with the angry Native American and it hadn’t gone well. He woke me up to translate. If I didn’t die in the attempt, I intended to kill Elder Rice afterward!

I want to talk about conflict and deescalating conflicts. Often, as managers we are forced to step in and play referee. I have to do this with my kids all the time. However, as a manager, you can’t treat your employees, or your coworkers like kids. . .no matter how much they might act like one.

The first thing to do in this type of tense conflict is listen. Often people simply want to be heard. Managing a team, or running a company is not a democracy. Sometimes you take a vote, but even after the votes are counted, as the manager you occasionally have to make the final call. If you take the time to make sure you listen to each person’s point of view, they still may not like the decision you make. They may not agree with it. They might even decide they need to leave the team over it, but at least they won’t be angry because they think you ignored them.

In my case on the bus all those years ago, I started off by listening. It didn’t help a lot, but as near as I could tell the man’s complaint is that we (presumably white people) took his land and he was not happy about it.

Listen Reflectively
Reflective listening is the process of taking what you’ve heard and repeating it back to the person you are talking to.

So, it sounds like your main objection to our teamroom scheduling policy is that it might prevent your team from using the room when they need it, is that right?

By reflective listening, you do three things. First, you reinforce to the person you are talking to that you really do understand their concern. Second, it gets the other person saying “Yes.” As any sales guy will tell you, the more you can get to “Yes” the easier it is to make a sale. And you really want to sell the person you are talking to on either a solution, or a project, or simply on the fact you understand their problem. And that’s the third benefit. By reflective listening you make sure that you understand the real issue.

I tried it with my Native American friend who was getting angrier by the minute.

So, you’re upset that your land was taken?

His response was unprintable.

A Soft Answer Turneth Away Wrath
Sometimes none of that works. Sometimes the situation is volatile enough that no amount of listening and talking will resolve it. We all learned this as kids, but it’s worth repeating, yelling doesn’t help. Getting angry, of course is worse.

The person who can control his temper in a discuss has a distinct advantage over the person who can’t.

When no amount of discussion and listening will deescalate the situation, sometimes the best course of actions to take yourself out of the discussion.

Sorry you feel that way, Bob. I think I understand your concerns. But, I’ve decided that we are going forward with this project. I don’t think further discussion is really going to get us past this.

And then, you end it. As the other person presses the point, you simply refuse to engage.

We’re not going to discuss this any more.

With my Native American friend that was the point we got to. As I tried to talk and listen my way out, I used every technique I could think of to get out of the conversation. He kept getting madder and madder. Finally, he pulled out a locking blade knife. It was probably like this one and only a couple inches long.


But, waving 18 inches from nose, it looked like a sword. I knew the conversation was over. What to do? I opted for the soft answer route.

Look, I don’t want to fight you.

And I turned away from him to face the front of the bus, my body tensed for an attack. Behind me I heard a movement. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him get up. . .and move back to the next row of seats.

I continued to stare forward.


A sweatshirt lashed out at me from the seat two rows back. I kept my attention forward shooting daggers at my companion who sat in the seat next to me.

I didn’t breath easy until we reached our stop and I was safely off the bus. Before I had a “discussion” with my companion, I turned on the other four LDS missionaries that had been on the bus with us.

What happened to you guys?

It looked like you were handling it.

If he’d killed me, at least they would have been there to identify the body.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (
LinkedIn (
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

One Comment

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. How Did You Do That? | Rodney M Bliss

Leave a Reply