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Practicing Empathy in a Crisis: Learning from Antoinette Tuff

Using empathy to resolve conflict

Our society has rapidly grown accustomed to the horrific images of school shootings, but when Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Center, encountered Michael Brandon Hall last week, she showed that a different outcome is possible. Her 911 call from the elementary school located in the small Atlanta suburb of Decatur, during which she repeatedly tries to talk Hall out of shooting children or police, has gone viral. Resultantly, Tuff has been widely credited with stopping another national tragedy.

Tuff didn’t have any special training in de-escalation tactics, and she had no way of protecting herself if Hall decided to start shooting. But people across the country have been amazed by her empathy, and some commentators argue that Tuff has provided a model for dealing with angry, aggressive behavior. While a gun might provide some protection and anger toward an intruder might feel justified, it was Tuff’s kindness and understanding that stopped the shooting. While most of us will never stop a mass shooting, we all encounter tense, escalating situations. Knowing how to calmly de-escalate can help you avoid fights, stress, and constant conflict. And if you’re ever faced with a truly dangerous person, Tuff’s calmness can serve as a model for how to act.

Find the Good

It’s tough to see how someone planning to shoot up a school has any good at all left, but we are all human. Tuff focused on Hall as a human being rather than as a criminal intruder, and in so doing, gained his trust. You can use the same approach in your daily life by finding good in anyone—even (or especially) the people who offend you or are rude to you.

Try paying a compliment to the rude waiter or asking the stressed receptionist about her long-term goals. If you’re ever faced with a violent person, focus on this person as a human being and ask him or her about life goals or plans. Then steer the person away from creating a legacy based on a violent act. Tuff encouraged Hall to focus on his life’s value, and you can do the same during both serious crises and minor daily stressors.

Offer Validation

You don’t have to validate angry or violent people’s behaviors or motives. If you can find something in their feelings to validate, though, you’ll quickly gain their trust. A key tool in the validation kit is listening. Ask what the other person is feeling and why, without offering judgment or arguing. When someone is in the midst of a crisis, you’re not going to convince him or her that life is easy or that stress is unwarranted. Instead, focus on making it clear that you care that the other person is struggling. This is also known as the “tend and befriend” method of conflict management.

Stay Calm

When we get into stressful situations, our heart rate increases and we may start sweating or shaking as our body prepares to fight or flee. Keep this reaction under wraps. No one wants to reason with a person who’s screaming, making threats, or diminishing their feelings. Even if you don’t feel calm, act that way. And if you can’t control your visible emotional reactions, own up to them. Try saying, “I’m really scared right now, but I want to hear what you have to say, so I’m sorry if my voice shakes.” Owning up to your own feelings can encourage the other person to talk about his or her emotions.

Don’t Make Assumptions

There’s a difference between empathizing with someone and erroneously assuming that you know exactly what that person is facing. Projecting your own emotions or life experiences onto another person can quickly destroy any rapport you’ve developed. If you’re having a disagreement with an insurance claims adjuster, avoid saying, “I get frustrated when I have to solve math problems, too.” You might offend the other party. Instead, focus on the emotion the other person seems to feeling and ask what you can do to help. 


  1. De-escalation tips. (n.d.). CPI. Retrieved from http://www.crisisprevention.com/Resources/Knowledge-Base/General/De-escalation-Tips
  1. Kilpatrick, K. (n.d.). Tips for de-escalating instead of re-escalating a crisis situation. New Haven. Retrieved from http://www.newhavenrtc.com/blog/de-escalating-crisis-situation/
  1. Walsh, J. (2013, August 22). The story bigots hate: Antoinette Tuff’s courage. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2013/08/22/the_story_the_right_hates_antoinette_tuffs_courage/?upw

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  • Blaine August 29th, 2013 at 11:09 AM #1

    So much to learn from this brave, strong woman and yet I fear that if I was put into this same situation I would not have near the courage to do what she did. I am afraid that for me my animal instinct would kick in, and that fight or flight would take over. Rather than empathize I think that my instinct would be to fight for my own life and for those closest to me.
    I guess if you look at it from her perspective in some ways she was doing that same thing but in a much calmer way than what I may have been able to do and believe me I feel like a lot of lives were spared as a result. I wish that more of us, including myself would have that instinct in us, but I fear that with all of the crime so prevalent that most of us are very far gone but in the other direction to have that kick in.

  • jeff August 30th, 2013 at 3:45 AM #2

    There are often those people who were placed on earth to be at the right pace at the right time. . . she was certainly one of those people

  • LizaQ September 1st, 2013 at 8:07 AM #3

    For most of us I think that we would find ourselves being so torn between wanting to do as she did and talk this person down from the ledge, but on the other hand being so fearful for our own lives and the damage that he or she could easily inflict to automatically want to do harm to him before he had the chance to do so to so many others. I really don’t know what I would do if I ever found myself in this situation. I know what I would like to think that I would do but I am not sure that in the end I would have the courage to stand strong and do what she did. Kudos to her, and may this be a lesson to us all that humanity is still good, that there are other ways to handle instances such as this that don’t have to include a weapon that inflicts harm, but rather can be deflected by words that show kindness and love.

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