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This 5 step de-escalation technique helps calm tense situations

Police talking to and calming down a victim

Police training programs increasingly promote de-escalation techniques instead of force — and they work for all kinds of situations

Power struggles, feelings of disrespect, arguments between colleagues or customers, and emotional overreactions are all escalating factors in everyday life. These day-to-day struggles, coupled with a person’s anxiety or a mental health crisis, can elevate situations from merely upset and angry to dangerous.

We’ve trained hundreds of people in healthcare, law enforcement, and front-line business operations in these five de-escalation steps that work:

  1. Speak calmly and with the right tone and use of words
  2. Ensure your body language is relaxed and in control
  3. Make a connection and be empathetic with people
  4. Get the agitated person away from weapons, harm, and other people
  5. Provide them with choices that empower them to comply

This five-step de-escalation technique works in many circumstances and one or more of them may help resolve a situation. These techniques can be applied with some modification to gain voluntary compliance from people with dementia, people experiencing a mental health emergency, upset customers, and even children and upset coworkers.

  • It is critical to remember de-escalation is on a spectrum. 
  • People do not usually go from calm to furious in an instant. 
  • Likewise, they do not go from furious and dangerous to calm and subdued. 
  • De-escalation tactics follow a path of reducing people’s agitation slowly.

1. De-escalating through language and listening

Yelling and having a negative tone does nothing to change a person’s behavior for the better. Instead, you must think about each phrase you say so a person’s feelings don’t ratchet up or down based on the mismatch between your tone and words. Merely saying “You can’t do that” with a calm voice isn’t enough.

Likewise, asking pointed questions can further frustrate people because they might not be able to answer. Or, they might think you’re belittling their needs. 

Challenging questions cause people to misinterpret situations or become flustered.

You may need to ask questions to determine what a person needs or intends to do, but make them open-ended and broad. 

Instead of saying:

  1. “You have to sit down right now.”
  2. “Are you going to hurt yourself?”
  3. “So what I’m hearing is you’re angry about the wait?”

Say this:

  • “You’re tired and disrespected.”
  • “Can you tell me more?”
  • “What else happened?”

John F. Kennedy never used the word “I” when he was President in any major speech because he knew saying “This government” or “Your government” instead helped establish a collective response belonging to all people without casting blame. 

  • The key to de-escalation is the same: never say “I” or any notion of “No.” Stay positive and focused on the other person.
  • Ask questions sparingly, and ensure they’re broad and open-ended, so they solicit an easy response. 
  • Maintain active listening by repeating people’s comments back to them, often in open-ended questions that are easy to answer.
  • Help the person feel validated and believed, if only for a few moments.

There are more de-escalation techniques covered in our online training and in-person active threat courses. You’ll discuss expected outcomes, practice advanced active listening skills, and rehearse situations in these trainings with veteran law enforcement officers and healthcare professionals.

2. Respect personal space and keep your body language neutral

Two adults speaking over a fence with defensive body language

Your facial expressions, how you sit or stand, crossing your arms, and even checking your watch or adjusting your glasses are all nonverbal communication that can lead to avoidable altercations.

Do this:

  • Tilt your head and nod to show signs of interest and active listening. 
  • Don’t interrupt someone, even if you have an important point to interject.
  • Use verbal persuasion phrases that help people understand you respect them even if you don’t agree, like, “That would make things worse for you” or “You’re right, they shouldn’t have done that.”

Avoid this:

  • A tense situation escalates when you pace, make erratic or sudden movements.
  • Don’t try to rush into someone’s personal space.
  • Avoid creating artificial time limits. 
  • Making long responses or lectures back at someone.

De-escalate tense situations by keeping your body language calm, neutral, and show signs of interest.

3. Make a connection with their interests

With the possible exception of an active threat situation, most people in an agitated state are after something — like a glass of water or to go somewhere else.

The basic principles for handling situations to alleviate their distress is:

  • Use a person’s first name, and make sure you spell, pronounce, and repeat it clearly and correctly.
  • Keep paying attention to what they say and repeat their needs back to them.
  • Offer concise and respectful choices to get them what they want.

This might include saying, “A nurse is getting your glass of water right now,” or, “We all need to step outside from time to time. Do you want to go outside now?” 

Likewise, frontline customer service workers might say, “You’re right. Let me get someone here who can resolve this.”

In all of these statements, you’re providing a person options and additional resources while ensuring there’s no trouble identifying the root problem.

4. Move people away from the source of the problem

All law enforcement de-escalation training programs trains officers to get the subjects and bystanders away from danger. In a hostage situation, a police department might evacuate an area and leave the agitated individuals in one controlled place. 

In our day-to-day challenges, it’s usually easier for most of us to ask the subject to move away from everyone else and then de-escalate the situation.

In low-level situations, for instance, a healthcare worker might suggest, “Let’s step into this office to talk about that,” or a cashier might say, “The manager can talk to you. Why don’t we step out in the hall.” These divert focus away from the original problem area and decrease the chances they’ll make a scene.

For a more severe crisis, we encourage people in de-escalation training to calmly encourage others to leave. “Can everyone give us the room?” can reduce the circumstances or people that led up to the anger. 

In extreme situations where weapons are involved, always call 911. When you call, give the 911 operator a description of the people and weapons involved. This increases officer safety and reduces the chances of using extreme force. 

Police officers have training established by the Police Executive Research Forum and academy best practices that helps them disarm individuals and spot the signs of substance abuse problems.

5. Give people options to move past the situation

An upset patient is helped by two nurses.

De-escalation training is all about shifting people’s focus to something in their control. You can do this by:

  • Helping them feel validated or that they did or are doing the right thing by leaving or moving on.
  • If someone asks for immunity or something you know won’t work (like avoiding arrest), reply, “Let’s talk about what can happen.” Then try to divert the focus to the positive choices they can make.
  • Don’t ignore the person immediately after discussing options or any questions they might pose.
  • Respond by asking, “What would work for you?” If they give a series of responses and one of them is relatively benign, like, “I want an apology,” offer one as a response strategy. For example, “That seems reasonable and fair. What do you want her to say?”

The point of these questions in de-escalation is to get them to offer a solid, reasonable solution to their problem, even if it’s a perceived problem. 

Practice your responses in virtual or in-person de-escalation training

When a person challenges someone and a power struggle ensues, many human factors fire off in rapid response. Many strategies for dealing with agitated people vary depending on their age, mental state, and environment. A restaurant, a dentist’s office, and a police standoff are all unique situations. 

We help people understand the de-escalation techniques most likely to work for them in their workplace. 

  • Training is conducted by veteran police officers and certified healthcare professionals.
  • Training is available to community members, schools, workplaces, churches, healthcare facilities, and other groups.
  • You’ll practice communication and ways to respond, reducing the chances of negative outcomes and incidents.
  • Training programs can be delivered online or in person at your location.

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