Communication, Mediation, and Conflict Resolution Strategies


Rangers employ a number of strategies while interacting with participants and patrolling in Black Rock City. These skills and strategies are techniques employed when engaging in communication, conflict mediation and resolution. 

Communication is a complex process. Differing perceptions may cause difficulties in the communication of ideas and information. Here are common problems in communication and ways to avoid them.

It’s Greek to Me
Your communication can be effective only when received in a language the receivers can understand. You need to speak not in your own language or style of thinking but in the language and style of thinking of the receivers. Understand their educational level and their demographics and communicate to them accordingly. 

Even when communicating in the language of the receivers, you can still lose them if you overload them with too much information or overly complex ideas. Use the KISS principle (Keep It Short and Simple). 

Biases and Assumptions
Examine your possible biases and personal assumptions about the issues you’re communicating. Disclose your own interests and agendas. The receivers will quickly tune out if they suspect that you have a hidden agenda. By being authentic, you will gain credibility, which is essential for effective communication. 

Communication is not just speaking;  it’s both speaking and listening. One-way communication is no communication at all. Make sure to listen and understand the others’ needs and points of view.

“Yes, But…”
Try to avoid using “Yes, but…” The word ‘but’ can negate everything that came before it. Instead, trying using “Yes, and…” to connect ideas.

If your message is not clear, or if it can be interpreted in more than one way, it will leave

the receivers wondering about what you mean. Make sure that your message is clear and unambiguous. 

Wrong Timing
In effective communication, timing is critical. For example, a message of praise and recognition should not come too long after the fact or it will lose its effectiveness. “Better late than never” may be true, but a timely message is the best.

Negative Attitude
Most people don’t like negative communication and bad news. Passive, weak, or negative communication will turn people off. Even the most negative, critical, or difficult communication will be better received when presented in a positive, affirmative style. Instead of saying, “This is a terrible idea,” try, “Tell me how we can make this idea work.

Active Listening and Nonverbal Communication

After Finding Out, listening is one of the first things we do once we determine that a situation needs Ranger intervention. The goal of active listening is twofold:

    1. To focus your attention as clearly and carefully as possible on what is being said, so that you understand what’s going on.
    2. To convey to the person talking that you are listening to and understanding what they are saying.

Tips for active listening:

    • When listening, keep eyes on the speaker’s eyes (or in the case of someone who’s angry, the lower face, since too much direct eye contact can be perceived as a challenge).
    • Nod, as appropriate.
    • Use what are referred to as “minimal encourager” noises.  These are the little words and noises you make to indicate that you’re listening: uh-huh, okay, right, mmmm, etc.

Body Language

Another very important thing to pay attention to is body language and other non-verbal communication. Humans are social creatures, and as such, evolved skills to communicate with our body long before we had language. Distress or undesirable behavior itself IS communication—the person in distress is providing physical and possibly non-verbal feedback.

Below are a few things to keep in mind:

    • Use 45-degree stance versus being face-to-face. Make sure to leave sufficient personal space.
    • Easy rule: Can I see your feet? If I can’t, I’m too close.
    • Touch: Be very cautious and use your best judgment.
    • Touching a participant can calm them down or can make things much, much worse.
    • Leave them an out: Never block someone’s escape route. In an enclosed space, do not stand between an agitated person and the exit.
    • Mirroring/matching: Use the speaker’s tone, body language, and words (careful to avoid this turning into mocking).
    • Pacing and leading: Match speaker’s speed and energy, then gradually slow or calm down.
    • Break state: Do anything else (e.g., go for a walk, smoke a cigarette, eat something, ask irrelevant questions).
    • Eye contact: As mentioned above, use enough to show you’re paying close attention, but not so much that you seem threatening (especially with an angry participant).
    • Writing down: Keeps your facts straight and lets participant know you’re taking it seriously.

Responding without contradicting is the verbal equivalent of a “45-degree stance”: It avoids confrontation without conceding the point.  Here are some tips for doing this:

“Yes, but …” will lead to argument.  Try “Yes, and …” or just “Yes.”

    • “I love you but I’m upset with you” is not as effective as “I love you and I’m upset with you.”
    • Instead of “I’m not going to do that”, try “You’re right, and I can’t figure out how to make that work.” or  “You’re right.  Can you show me how it could work?”

Don’t contradict.

    • “Wait, I think I might have misunderstood you” works better than “No, you’re wrong.”
    • “Hang on, maybe I wasn’t being clear” works better than “No, that’s not what I said.”

Finally, help to create more options. Often, when people get riled up, options seem to disappear. Offering more options (or helping them think of options themselves) can calm someone down. People without options can feel trapped.

Sometimes, the best way to communicate is by not talking. Silence can be comfortable or uncomfortable: both can be useful in the right situation. Sometimes silent companionship is all that someone needs if they’re stressed out. Uncomfortable silence can be a useful tool for getting people to think about what they’ve been saying or get them to talk more.

Trigger Issues

A trigger issue is something that you react to from a place of deep emotion instead of from reason. Triggers are not minor annoyances or “pet peeves.” Rather, trigger issues are things that make you lose objectivity and self-control, and therefore prevent you from Rangering effectively.

You can be triggered by:

    • Words (e.g., “bitch,” “stupid,” “cop”)
    • Actions (e.g., physical violence)
    • Situations (e.g., lost children, animal abuse)

Learn to recognize when you’re being triggered and to acknowledge that you’re losing objectivity. If you are aware of the kinds of words, actions, and situations that might trigger you, share them with your partner during your shift. If you find yourself unable to look at a situation from an objective perspective, remove yourself from the situation by kicking it sideways to your partner or to another Ranger team through Khaki.

Expanding your comfort zone is an important exercise, but our commitment to the community and the participants takes precedence over your personal growth. There may be another Ranger better suited to handling that particular situation.


F stands for Find Out. First, stand back and observe. Be aware of safety issues, both your own and the participant’s. If there is a safety issue where you feel that you, your partner, or participants are in danger, call Khaki immediately.

When you have determined that it is safe to approach and that you are needed, find out the facts. What is the primary complaint? Who is involved? When did the conflict start/incident occur? Where did it happen? 2015 Rebar Ceremony with Ranger Splinter

There will always be at least three sides: the sides of the individuals involved directly in conflict (which may be two or more) and an impartial third perspective, when you can find it.

Add to these three sides the perspective you bring to the situation, which encompasses your experience, the general opinion of all the participants, and the ideology of the Burning Man Project.

L stands for Listen. Listen to all parties to ensure that all stakeholders have had a chance to be heard and give their input. Be aware that, at times, you may have to use your judgment as to who is really involved. Concentrate on the parties who need your direct assistance and make time for everyone who has legitimate input. Listening is a powerful tool, not only for getting information and de-escalating conflicts but also for establishing a general rapport and social capital with your fellow citizens of Black Rock City.

A stands for Analyze. Once you have gathered all the information that you can, analyze it with your partner. Take all of the facts that you gathered during the F and L parts of the process and consider your understanding of the expectations of the citizens of Black Rock City, the policies of the Ranger Department, and the ideology and policies of the Burning Man Project.

Active deliberation and use of your best judgment is required at this stage in the process and is fully backed by the Ranger organization. You are an integral part of our team: we have faith in ourselves and in you. This is at the core of Rangering.

M stands for Mediate. Your primary role when you mediate is to make suggestions as a neutral third party. Mediation allows the participants involved to arrive at the best way to resolve their situation. Determine which participants involved may have room to budge and those whose interests are such that they cannot or will not give in. This is often not based on right and wrong.

Work with all parties involved until an outcome is reached that seems to function well. Whenever possible, facilitate the parties reaching their own joint solution. People are much more likely to stick to a solution when they feel ownership of the process and that the resolution came from them rather than from an authority figure telling them what to do.

E stands for Explain. Explanation completes your “flaming” of the situation. Explain the outcome of the mediation process to everyone involved, ensuring that all parties have come to a consensus that they can live with (…or at least live with for a week).

This is not always the end. Within the Burning Man event, while things change constantly, the explanations you give will be repeated and re-requested not only by the parties involved, but by other participants. You will often be asked by neighbors to explain the outcome, later that day, that evening, the next morning, even months after the event has ended. Do this while respecting the privacy of the individuals involved in any given situation. An ability to accurately recall and explain a situation after the fact is why it is important to take notes in your Ranger notebook throughout any mediation process.

    • Notify Khaki of the what/where/when/how of conflicts and their outcomes during or immediately after your shift (you can drop written reports off at HQ at the end of your shift or fill out an incident report at the kiosk behind HQ).
    • Always be sure to find out first.
    • New information and new perspectives can often send you back to find out more, listen to new stakeholders, or analyze facts that you didn’t have when you began FLAME-ing the situation.

Conflict Resolution Tips

  • Remember that everyone thinks they have a good reason for what they do.
  • Use active listening skills.
  • Never tell someone to “calm down”; calm them down by your presence and performance.
  • When body language and words come into conflict, words will lose every time.
  • Use “we” and “us” to generate connection with people.
  • Separate arguing people if possible, so you and your partner can talk to them individually.
  • If you have separated participants, be sure to keep your partner in sight at all times.
  • The less ego you bring to the table, the more control you will have over a situation.
  • Be aware of your trigger words and your trigger issues.
  • Never lose self-control: walk away before you do and defer to your partner.
  • Ask involved citizens to think about possible solutions (and give them time to do so).
  • You move a crowd one person at a time.
  • Treat everyone with equal respect.
  • Let involved citizens or passionate observers have the last word, as long as you have the last act.
  • Always keep our social capital in mind when dealing with participants, staff, and outside agencies.
  • A useful follow-up: “If you need anything, come find us.” Assuring folks that we are, after all, on their side and that help is available if something important comes up.

Empathy and Empathic Attunement

“Empathic attunement” is understanding somebody else’s emotions and then communicating to them that you understand them.

This is important because feeling understood can be calming/de-escalating for an upset participant, and they are more likely to be open to your input if they feel understood.

Your goal as a Ranger is to understand how someone is feeling without getting caught up in their emotions or taking sides.

    • You don’t have to agree with someone to understand what they’re feeling.
    • You don’t need to like or love them to understand what they’re feeling.
    • Letting them know you understand them is not the same as telling them what they want to hear.

The point of empathic attunement is not to talk someone out of how they’re feeling, it’s to tune in to how they’re feeling so you can connect with them and thus deal with them more effectively.

A great way to build empathic attunement with another person is this three-step process:

Step 1: Notice the emotion the person is expressing.  

Step 2: Look for the cause of the emotion.

Try to figure out what thoughts / beliefs are underlying the emotion.

        • With angry people, look for perceptions of unfairness.
        • With sad people, look for perceptions of loss.
        • With anxious people, look for perceptions of danger.

Step 3: Validate the feeling (without necessarily agreeing with the assessment).

Interest versus Position

One of the most useful conflict resolution concepts is the difference between interests and positions.

An interest is someone’s underlying need or want. For example:

“I’ve been up all night because the neighbor camp is playing loud music.” 

My underlying interest is in getting to sleep.

A position is somebody’s stated requirement of how they want to get that interest satisfied. For example:

“I need you jerks to turn off your stereo right now!”

Positions are not always unreasonable, just a difficult place from which to negotiate. Identifying underlying interests can be powerful because it helps people generate more options, and thus makes it more likely that the conflict can be resolved. Focusing on positions leads towards an “I win or you win” situation,” focusing on underlying interests leads away from that kind of conflict.

Observation versus Inference

What did you actually see or hear versus what you believed to be happening, based on what you heard or saw?

Open and Closed Questions

Open-ended questions invite more participation and detail from a speaker.

    • Example: “What are you up to today?”
    • Example: “How’s your Burn going?”

Closed-ended questions invite a yes/no or factual answer.

    • Example: “Do you understand?”
    • Example: “How old are you?”

Both are useful in the right context.

Open-ended encourages free communication, closed-ended questions can decrease the level of engagement, which can be useful if you want the person to focus, slow down or be less chatty.


Paraphrasing is a critical skill that helps with active listening. Paraphrasing is restating and summarizing what the speaker is saying without adding anything. This gives the speaker a chance to correct you if you’ve misunderstood something.


We’ve already discussed two very powerful de-escalation techniques: listening and empathy. Here are some other tips:

    • ·Start by de-escalating yourself.

“Am I feeling overwhelmed or charged by this? Did I just get a jolt of adrenaline?”

    • ·When things get heavy, slow down instead of rev up.

“Let me breathe for a second and figure out what I want to do here.”

    • ·Separate arguing people.
    • ·Ideally, get them out of each other’s sight—while maintaining sight of your partner

Calm people with your presence and actions and example, not by telling them to calm down. It’s hard to get people to calm down if you’re acting anxious or angry. Never tell anyone to calm down. Ever. Seriously.

A useful warning sign you may need to kick it sideways, or call another Ranger pair is if you or the participant are starting to repeat yourselves. This may indicate something has gone wrong in the communication cycle. The speaker may feel misunderstood, or you may be getting overwhelmed or over-involved. If this happens, slow down and ask more questions, or kick it sideways to another set of Rangers.

Transcending the Model

The tools and concepts taught in Ranger training stem from our department’s ideas about what makes up a “model Ranger.” However, it is not effective to have a “model” walking around the playa, thinking about all of their newly-learned skills and trying to use them separately and individually. 

A Ranger is more than the sum of a set of tools and concepts. A Ranger rises above the prescribed model, integrating and surpassing what they learned in training. By transcending the model, you will live and work within the boundaries of the tool set provided while finding your own style shaped by your gut, heart, mind, and training. You will become even more than the model Ranger you aspired to be. Transcending the model happens over time. It cannot be forced and it takes practice. All you can do is be who you are and learn from the interactions you have. Be authentic, and Ranger with curiosity and humility. If you are relaxed and not thinking about every move you make, but instead integrate the concepts of Rangering as your own. You are a Ranger, not a walking tool box. 

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