Working with the public can be made easier with verbal de-escalation skills

Being trapped in a confined space with a person shouting in frustration is a situation ripe for the escalation of tempers on both sides – you don’t have to let that happen.

Dealing with members of the public who are belligerent or hostile can be an upsetting occurrence. Even if you are not in physical danger, it can be emotionally draining and demoralizing. In some cases, these individuals can become aggressive or physically dangerous. It is always better to manage a situation with words and language when you have the opportunity to do so.

CPI, the Crisis Prevention Institute, has been providing professional de-escalation training for 40 years, teaching the skills that help professionals de-escalate verbal and physical crises in workplaces. Professions which rely upon de-escalation training typically are in hospital, psychiatric, and dementia care settings; police and other first responders and correctional officers rely daily on these verbal skillsets.

As one co-worker noted, “I don’t know how they do it: as the situation gets crazier, these guys get calmer.”

CPI notes in its recent tip sheet “Seven Principles for Effective Behaviour Intervention,”  “Your effective response to this behavior is often the key to avoiding a physical confrontation with an out-of-control individual. These seven principles for verbal intervention will help you deal with the situation in the safest, most effective way possible.”

  • Remain calm. This may be easier said than done, especially when a person is screaming, making threats, or using abusive language. Remember that the verbally escalating person is beginning to lose control. If the person senses that you are also losing control, the situation will probably get worse. Try to keep your cool, even when challenged, insulted, or threatened.
  • Keep It Simple. Be clear and direct in your message. A person who is beginning to lose rational control will not be processing information as well as they usually do.
  • Watch Your Body Language. As a person becomes increasingly agitated, they will pay less attention to your words and more attention to your body language. Be aware of your use of space, posture, and gestures. Don’t get too close to the person, and avoid gestures that might seem threatening. Make sure your nonverbal behavior is consistent with your verbal message.
  • When possible, avoid engaging when there is an audience. Onlookers, especially peers of the verbally escalating person, tend to fuel the fire. They often become cheerleaders, encouraging the individual. In addition, the presence of an audience makes it more difficult for the person to back down, for fear of losing face in front of others.
  • Use Reflective Questioning. Put the person’s statements in your own words and then check with them to see if you have understood what they meant. By repeating or reflecting the person’s message in the form of a question, you’ll give them an opportunity to clarify that message. This reflective questioning is also a powerful way to let the person know that you are listening to their words.
  • Use Silence. Surprisingly, silence is a very effective verbal intervention technique. Silence on your part allows the individual time to clarify their thoughts and restate their message. This often leads to valuable insight and clearer understanding of the true source of the person’s conflict.
  • Watch Your Paraverbals. “Paraverbal communication” refers to the tone, volume, and cadence (rate and rhythm) of your speech. Many identical statements can have completely opposite meanings, depending on your paraverbals. For example, the question, “What’s wrong?” could be stated in a caring, supportive way or in an impatient, condescending way.