P is for Following Your Principles When Dealing With Provocation  

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Looking back, can you think of a time when you followed your principles in the face of provocation? This could have been in your personal or professional life.

You may have stayed calm when faced by challenging behaviour. Clarifying your core values, you translated these into action. The experience may have shaken you, but you stayed true to yourself.

During my early career I was given advice about dealing with people who behaved liked psychopaths. At the time I was working in therapeutic communities for former addicts, alcoholics and criminals. I was told:

Dirty fighters will try to provoke you. They will sling insults and behave in frightening ways. They will aim to drag other people down into the gutter, because that is where they like to fight.  

Dirty fighters like the feeling of power. They like to feel in charge and make the rules. They will pick fights, blame others and keep jumping from subject to subject. Many people fall into their trap and start fighting on the dirty fighter’s terms.

You can take time to pause. Stay calm and focus on the core principles you believe it is important to follow in life. Remember that these principles have their own power.

You can then do your best to practise these principles in the difficult situation. Stay calm and stand firm, because otherwise the dirty fighters will have won.

People face many tests in life. One of the hardest is to follow their personal principles when faced by provocation. Let’s explore one approach to making this happen.

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Imagine that you face a situation in which somebody aims to provoke you. Bear in mind that this is sometimes about power. The other person may want to set the agenda, knock you off balance or simply want attention.

Before looking at how do to deal with such provocation, however, a few words about conflict resolution. Two conditions must be in place before it is possible to solve deep differences.

People must want to solve the conflict.

People must be prepared to work hard to, as far as possible, find win-win solutions.

Timing is everything. Many conflicts only get resolved when the parties are exhausted. Couples feel weary from fighting a divorce, employers and strikers are exhausted after an industrial dispute, terrorists became too old or tired to fight.

People get fed-up with the negative energy. They are then more willing to sit down and find positive solutions. You can discover more about this approach via the following link.


Let’s return to the potential situation in which somebody tries to provoke you. They may do this by accusing you, throwing a tantrum, blaming scapegoats or continually changing the subject to avoid taking responsibility. Here are some steps you may consider to deal with the situation.


The first step is to buy time. Different people do this in different ways. They may have a personal mantra in which they say things like:

Stay calm, breathe deeply and take your time before responding.

Good decision makers often buy time before making a decision. They do this when working as a leader, paramedic, crisis manager or in another role. When faced by a critical situation, they stay calm and take the following steps.

They clarify what is actually happening in the situation. 

They clarify the potential options for going forwards together with the pluses and minuses of each option. 

They then pursue their chosen strategy and do everything possible to achieve the picture of success.

You will have your own method for pausing. You may breathe deeply, do your own version of counting to 10 or whatever. Once you have done this, you may then want to focus on the next step.


Imagine that you have stayed calm when faced by provocation. You can then consider the possible options for moving forwards.

One approach is to consider the strategic options. It is to go through the following stages involved in creative problem solving. This involves focusing on clarity, creativity and concrete results by exploring the following questions.


What are my goals in this situation? What are the real results I want to achieve? What are the things I can and cannot control? Bearing in mind what I can control, what is the picture of success?


What are the possible choices for going forwards? What are the consequence – the pluses and minuses – of each option? On a scale 0-10, what is the attractiveness of each option? Are there any other potential options? 

Concrete Results

What is the option – or combination of options – that I want to follow? How can I translate this into a clear action plan? How can I build on the pluses and minimise the minuses of pursuing this option?

There is another approach to dealing with challenging situations. This is to focus on the principles you want to follow in your life. You may believe, for example, that it is important to be kind, encouraging and work to build a better world.

Staying calm in the challenging situation, you can return to your moral compass. You can then explore the following questions.

Clarifying Principles

What are my deepest values? What are the principles that I believe it is important to follow in life? Why do I believe it is important to follow these principles? 

How can I follow these principles in the present situation? How can I translate these into concrete actions? How can I do my best to act as a positive model for other people?

Imagine that you have decided on the principles you want to follow in the situation. You may then want to create an action plan.

One approach is to describe the Dos and Don’ts you want to follow in the challenging situation. You may also want to rehearse how to follow these guidelines.

If appropriate, you can also craft a script you want to follow. If blown off-course, you can then return to giving these messages in a calm and clear way. Here is a possible format for an action plan.

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Imagine that you have clarified your action plan and the script you want to follow. Then comes the hard part, putting it into practise.

One leader explained their approach to making this happen. She held a meeting with a talented but troublesome person who was causing problems in the team. The leader gave the following messages to the person during a one-to-one meeting.

As you know, the team’s goal is to …  

Bearing this in mind, the professional principles we would like people in the team to follow in order to achieve this goal are to … 

The reasons why it is important for people to follow these principles to help the team achieve its goal are … 

Looking to the future, I would like you to consider whether you would like to follow these professional principles and contribute towards achieving the goal. 

If so, we can then make clear contracts about your best contribution.

At this point the team member interrupted. They then launched into giving lots of reasons to justify their lack of taking responsibility. The person also accused the leader of not behaving properly.

The leader responded by going back to the script. They said:

Let’s go back to the team’s goal. This is to …  

The professional principles we want people to follow to achieve the goal are to …

Let me know whether you are prepared to follow these principles to help the team achieve its goal.

The team member again tried to deflect and blame others. This is a tactic used by many dirty fighters. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, they jump from subject to subject.

The leader responded by repeating the professional guidelines that people needed to follow to achieve the team’s goal. They then asked the person to go away and reflect on whether or not they wanted to follow these professional principles.

This was a relatively simple situation. The leader had the power to decide whether or not the team member should be in the team. Eventually a new person was recruited to replace the team member who was not prepared to follow the team guidelines.

What happens when you have no formal power? What happens, for example, if you are persecuted or provoked by bullying people or repressive regimes?

There are no easy answers to this question. Throughout history, however, people have taken a stand by drawing power from following their personal principles.

The Dali Llama, for example, tries to follow his belief that: “My religion is kindness.” He adopts this approach when talking about repression in Tibet or building a better world. He aims to spread kindness through his words and actions.

Many people draw on their inner power by serving a cause greater than themselves. Quakers who believed in pacifism, for example, joined The Friends Ambulance Corp during the Second World War.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, you think of situation in which you may want to deal with provocation by following your principles? This could be in your personal or professional life.

What can you do then to pause? How can you focus on your core principles? How can you then practise these principles in the difficult situation?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future in which you may want to follow your principles to deal with provocation. 

Describe the specific things you can do then to follow your principles in the situation. 

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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