The classic crisis de-escalation techniques Tillerson, Puerto Rico, and Mexico are using with Trump

Listening to an agitated person de-escalates crisis; calling him “a moron” does not.
Listening to an agitated person de-escalates crisis; calling him “a moron” does not.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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When an irritated aggressor is putting lives at risk, traditional forms of communication won’t do. For such situations, experts have clear guidelines for how to calm things down without anyone getting hurt.

Those are the kind of techniques US politicians, foreign leaders, and even White House appointees are resorting to when dealing with president Donald Trump’s impulsive and bellicose style.

Take Rex Tillerson. The US secretary of State has made headlines recently, first because his boss belittled him on Twitter, then after reports that Tillerson called Trump “a moron” behind his back. But in an Oct. 4 press conference, Tillerson was in full damage-control mode, pledging his commitment to the president and his “America First” policies. “He demands results wherever he goes, and he holds those around him accountable… Accountability is one of the bedrock values the president and I share.”

That’s what experts would call “fogging”: finding something to agree on with the agitated person to deflect tension. Here are some other crisis de-escalation methods, recommended by the American Association for Emergency Psychiatry (AAEP), that Tillerson and others have tried. Their intended subjects were agitated patients in a hospital, but they transfer well to other situations—though whether they would work during a full-blown political emergency is another question.

Remain calm

“A clinician cannot be effective if he has too much emotion or is frightened by the patient,” AAEP’s guide says. “He must monitor his own emotional and physiologic response so as to remain calm.”

That’s been Mexico’s attitude. Mexicans have ample reasons to be scared of Trump: His threatened cancellation of the North American Free Trade Agreement would be devastating for their export-dependent economy. But as former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari told the New Yorker, “today more than ever, it is necessary to recur to the second most important of Plato’s virtues: prudence.”

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has been similarly stoic in the aftermath of hurricane Maria, even as Trump sat next to him and complained about the expense of saving Puerto Rican lives. Like Mexico, Puerto Rico can’t afford to upend its relationship with the US. Its own finances are in a shambles, and it will need billions of dollars to recover from the storm.

Don’t hit back

It’s not productive, as San Juan’s mayor found out. In an emotional plea for help in the midst of the hurricane-induced crisis, Carmen Yulín Cruz contradicted Trump’s narrative that his administration’s response had been stellar. Trump responded by calling her and others on the island lazy, inept, and ingrate.

“Humiliation itself can be traumatic,” the AAEP guide points out. “Therefore, do not challenge the patient, insult him, or do anything else that can be perceived as humiliating.”

Tillerson understands this too. On Oct. 4 he distanced himself from the “moron” epithet, first saying he wasn’t going to “deal with petty stuff like that,” and later denying that he ever said it.

In Mexico, president Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has been resisting public pressure to lash out at Trump for insulting Mexicans. When asked if he felt offended by Trump, Mexico’s economy secretary, Idelfonso Guajardo, said that as a government official, he does “not have the luxury of being insulted. But as a Mexican, yes, I am, deeply so.”

For now, the Mexican public is limited to venting its frustration by whacking Trump piñatas and mocking the American president on protest signs.

Assign a point person

Interacting with many people at once can be confusing for an agitated person and make things worse, according to AAEP’s guide. It’s best to have a single person do the talking.

In Mexico, that person is foreign minister Luis Videgaray, who’s been shuttling between Mexico City and Washington since Trump took office. He may not be talking directly to Trump—the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is reported to be his main intermediary. But it appears the foreign minister has successfully set up a direct and exclusive channel to Trump. “U.S. officials sometimes learn the latest not from their own agencies but from their Mexican counterparts—especially Videgaray,” an unnamed official told the New Yorker.

Get on the agitated person’s good side

Aside from “fogging,” which the guide recommends doing whenever possible, it can help to give the agitated person something he or she wants. “Offer things that will be perceived as acts of kindness, such as blankets, magazines, and access to a phone.”

Trump’s interlocutors have been using praise, as in this artful answer Rosselló gave when asked about Trump’s response to Maria. First some approval, then the request.

I want to be very clear with this. I am very pleased with the consideration the president has given to Puerto Rico. He has been on top of it, at least personally in communication with me and communication with some of our officials as well as his officials. However we still need more, and the president understands that, and his team understands that.

Tillerson, too, had some compliments. He called Trump smart. He said he loved his country. It seems to have worked, for now.