Leading in Tense Situations

He is standing right in front of you and he is ticked off.  As he raises his voice and points his finger at you (hopefully not the middle one), the situation quickly escalates and the atmosphere becomes very tense.

If you lead in children's ministry, sooner or later you will face a tense situation.  It might be a parent who lost their pick-up tag and is upset that you are such a stickler about parents having a pick-up tag.  Or it might be a parent whose child was bullied in class.  Or it might even be a volunteer who is upset about a decision you made. It might be a staff member that feels like they were treated unfairly.

If you don't know how to respond correctly, you can make the situation even worse.

No matter what the situation is and no matter what caused it, here are some steps that will help you be prepared and know how to lead through it. 

1.  If it happens when you are in a public place like a hallway or in the middle of the classroom, step away from the crowd and find a quiet place to talk.

2. De-escalate the tension.  If you raise your voice, the situation can quickly escalate higher.  Lower your voice well below the level of their voice.  This can help calm the person who is upset.  You must be very intentional about quickly taking this step. 

3. Stay calm.  When an angry person is spewing at you, it is crucial that you don't lash back.  Yes, you will feel like you are under attack and you may want to lash back and "tell the person off," especially if their anger is not justified. But don't do it.  The goal is not to be "right" at this point.  It is to help the person calm down so you can find a solution together.

4. Find out why the person is upset.  Encourage the person to share why they are angry.  Listen without interrupting.  Ask questions to get a complete understanding of why they are upset.  

5. Show empathy.  Try to see the situation from the person's perspective.  Through your actions and words, show them that you care about what they are saying.  Put yourself in their shoes and think about a time when you got angry and how it feels.

Remind yourself that often there are underlying factors that are causing the person to lash out.  I'll never forget a father who had a child in our ministry.  One Sunday, he got to the person checking pick-up tags and he had lost his tag.  The person at the door asked him to walk down to guest services and get another tag so he could pick up his child.  

He wanted no part of that.  He became furious and started causing a scene at the door.  We pulled him aside and were able to calm him down and share the importance of the safety and security system that was in place.  

We didn't realize it was just a symptom of some deeper, underlying issues he was going through.  A few weeks later, he committed suicide.  We had just experienced the tip of the iceberg of the struggles and pain he must have been going through. I have found that is normally the case when someone's feelings are escalated.  They are already struggling and something small can seem like a big problem for them.   

6. Repeat what they told you, so they know they were heard.  People want to be heard when they are angry.  They want to know that you care about what they are saying. Repeating what they said back to them makes a big difference and let's them know they have been heard. 

Here's an example. After a service, you are approached by an angry parent.  The person says, "when I picked up my son, he was upset.  He told me that two of the boys sitting behind him kept picking on him.  The volunteers didn't see it happening, because they were in the back of the room talking among themselves.  I want something done about this.

You respond by saying...

"So, your child told you he was being bullied and because the volunteers were in the back of the room, they didn't see it happen."  

This helps them know you clearly heard their complaint and want to help resolve it.  

7.  Apologize and work with them to find resolution.  Don't make excuses or get defensive.  Ask them what you can do to help resolve the situation and make things right.  Work with them and define some action steps you are going to take. 

Back to our bullying example.  You could let the mother know the steps you will take.

  • Remind the volunteers they are to be sitting among the kids during large group time. 
  • If it happens again, don't hesitate to raise your hand and we will take care of it. 
  • Find out from the child, exactly what was said when he was being bullied.
  • We will talk with the 2 boys who were bullying and let them know it is to stop immediately.  And ideally, they will apologize to the child who was bullied.
8.  Follow up.  Loop back with the person and let them know the steps have been completed.  Thank them for bringing it to your attention and let them know their input or questions are always welcomed.

Follow these steps and you will turn your foe into a friend.