Conflict De-Escalation: A how-to guide

Hollaback! provides trainings on how to do your part to protect your neighbors and co-workers when bias and harassment collide in front of you.

Oftentimes, when we find ourselves witnessing someone in an unsafe environment, there is a moment of hesitation. What should I do? Why am I being trained to “be nice” to this racist? How can I help the situation?

Conflict de-escalation is a strategy to prevent people from escalating into violence. It’s designed to protect and take care of communities using an approach that, if successful, can limit or completely eliminate the need for police intervention. This condensed resource based off of Hollaback’s! Conflict De-Escalation Training aims to educate bystanders and give you the tools to determine if you are the right person to safely de-escalate a conflict. 

This resource and training was made in collaboration with Asian American’s Advancing Justice | AAJC, a DC-based organization working to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all. Anti-Asian/American racism – as well as racism towards communities of color, black and brown communities, and immigrant communities – is one part of the many conflicts you may see arising during this time, so we at Hollaback! believe addressing these racially fueled episodes of harassment is important.

As always, read at your own discretion and do what you need to do to take care of yourself, as these topics are sensitive and may be triggering to some. 


Explicit biasImplicit Bias
Expressed directlyExpressed Indirectly
Aware of BiasUnaware of Bias
Operates ConsciouslyOperates Subconsciously
Example: I don’t like [people from a specific identity]Example: Not acknowledging certain contributions from [people with a specific identity]

Before we dissect what creates conflict and how to combat these moments of discrimination, it is critical to understand what we are up against.

Bias is identity-based prejudice toward a person, group, or community \based on anything from race, sex, and gender expression to perceived power, economic or social status. Explicit bias is more outward and direct, whereas implicit bias is subconscious, but at Hollaback! we recognize that both of these attitudes are harmful and discriminatory to all people of color and historically marginalized communities. During times of societal pressure such as a pandemic or in areas with high political tensions, these detrimental viewpoints have a tendency to be heightened and displayed more. A few examples of everyday bias are:

  • Assuming that communities of color are “dirty” and don’t follow rules
  • Assuming that all Asian Americans are good at math. 
  • Assuming people without English language fluency are “dumb” 
  • Assuming people who live in certain neighborhoods will cause more trouble

 It is important not only to recognize the bias of those within a conflict, but also how your own bias may show up. Would you perceive the situation the same if the people involved were white? 


Conflict de-escalation is hard. While bystander intervention is something anyone can do. Conflict de-escalation requires patience, a willingness to listen, and ultimately the ability to see the humanity in everyone, even if they are hurtful. Keep in mind, these aren’t fixed qualities. There are moments when we are patient and moments when we can’t be. Knowing yourself, and understanding where you are is important to being able to figure out if you’re the right person to intervene in this moment. With these qualities in mind, let’s dive into how exactly we can help in situations of tension


Hollaback! offers a three-step approach: 

  • Observe.
  • Breathe.
  • Connect.


We partner with organizations around the world to adapt our proven training to local cultures, contexts, and identities. There are two ways to work with us. First, we can provide the training, either by paying us as consultants or through a grant that we collaboratively apply for. Second, we also license our training methodology to organizations globally. Organizations will need to go through a three-day train-the-trainer and sign an MOU prior to providing the training locally, to ensure quality. Please email [email protected] if you’re interested.


First, observe the environment. Pay attention to the behavior of the people involved from a safe distance while also asking yourself, are you the right person to step in. Think about how far along the situation has gotten using Hollaback!’s pyramid of escalation. Is this just lower-level agitation with signs like aggressive body language, eye-rolling, and loud sighs, or are you witnessing a peak point in conflict with verbal abuse, physical aggression, and a possible display of weapons? Could your identities put you at increased risk? Is the person escalating intoxicated?

Getting involved in conflict when you aren’t fully aware of the dangers, poses a risk to everyone involved, possibly making things worse. When de-escalating a situation, always prioritize your own safety, and if you are unable to intervene, you can turn to Hollaback’s! 5D’s of bystander intervention instead. 


After you are well versed on what you are stepping into, breathe before you take any sort of action. As mentioned earlier, safety is the number one priority when it comes to de-escalating a conflict and if you are agitated, anxious, or angry the situation could escalate — and put you in increased danger. Everyone has their own strategies to self-soothe, so whether that be taking three deep breaths or releasing the tension in your stance by relaxing your shoulders, fists, and knees, do what you need to do. Try taking advantage of the box breathing method, a breathing technique where you inhale, hold, exhale, and hold each for three seconds — and then do the exercise is 3-4 rounds. While it may sound a little humorous or unrealistic, in fact, box breathing is a strategy taught to Marine’s before going into conflict! Taking time to de-escalate yourself before de-escalating others is often overlooked, leading to lots of built-up emotions and tension in situations of potential danger. Check in with yourself before you decide to show up for others. 


Now you’re ready to step in. You have briefly and safely analyzed the situation and feel grounded in your abilities. The proven way to de-escalate a situation? Connection. By connecting with the person, you’ve created an opportunity to build empathy for everyone involved, and from here comes progress. Through empathy, we’re able to validate and de-escalate each other’s feelings even if we don’t understand them. No one is asking you to act as a mediator and come to some sort of peaceful resolution, instead, have your goal be to give that person a feeling that they are heard and that not everyone is out to get them.

When connecting (while maintaining social distancing of course) you can directly ask if they would like to have a conversation with you, offer to walk them somewhere away from the conflict, and ask clarifying and open-ended questions to repeat back what they’ve told you. Be sure to give the individual your undivided attention while maintaining soft direct eye contact and focus on their feelings, not their opinions. Again, there are some experiences and emotions that you may not understand, but assure them that what they’re going through is valid and important. This is not the place for arguing, disregarding, belittling, or any sort of lengthy monologue. With these tips, you will be able to make a difference. 


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