Psst…Hey…Over here…I have a secret to share with you. Would you like to hear it? You would? Awesome!
What I am about to let you in on is something that effective and experienced de-escalators of extreme behaviors already know. Actually, there are two “secrets” that you need to know if you are going to learn how to calm someone down quickly, safely and effectively. As frightening and intimidating as it can be to have to deal with someone who is screaming at you, shouting, swearing and threatening you, if you know how to respond, you will still be the one in control. Now that I’ve kept you in suspense, here are the two so-called “secrets”. The first is that what all confrontational and aggressive behavior is is an outward response to a threat. The second “secret” is that self-control is your biggest and most effective weapon against these attacks. Allow me to explain.
De-Escalation “Secret” #1: Threat Response
When we feel threatened, our bodies respond by initiating our “fight, flight or freeze” response. This is something that most of us already know about to some degree. What you may not realize is that everyone feels threatened when they perceive that their needs, values or sense of self are being undermined in some way. This includes you and me. In most cases, we are able to regulate our behavior so that we stay within social norms. In the context of aggressive and threatening behavior however, it is important to understand that most of the time, but not always, the agitated person is very close to completely losing their ability to think rationally. When we are not rational, we cannot engage in complex discussions. All we understand are simple statements. We are in “fight” mode, and everything that we are seeing and hearing is being assessed and labeled as being either a threat, or not a threat. So, in our role as de-escalator, our job is to communicate in a way that puts us in their “not a threat” category. Sounds simple enough right? No? It actually isn’t as difficult as you might think.
First of all, there are some universal strategies you should use that will make you appear less threatening. First, make sure you are respecting their personal space. Stay close enough so that you don’t have to shout at each other to be heard, but not close enough that you could reach out and touch them. The more they escalate, the more distance you should keep between you. If they step back from you, you were probably standing too close. If they step towards you, it’s possible that you were too far away. However, considering their “fight” mindset, it is also very possible that they are trying to close distance in order to intimidate you or even assault you. So, for your own safety, be very aware of distance when engaging with a highly agitated person. You also want to maintain a calm tone of voice and body posture. Use open gestures that demonstrate that you are in control of yourself, and not preparing to counter their attack with one of your own. We are all pretty good at distinguishing between an assertive and an agitated tone of voice. As well as a calm tone of voice, the words you use should be deliberate and well considered before they escape your lips. Remember, your words will be evaluated quickly for their level of threat. Regardless of the person or the situation, these universal approaches should be utilized if you want a highly agitated person to view you as non-threatening.
Now that you have your universal tools out and in play, you can focus more directly on the actual threat that the individual is reacting to. If you are able to determine what has happened to trigger such an escalation from this person, you can take some deliberate steps to distance yourself from the source of their emotions. As an intervenor, there are really only two places that you can be in the eyes of an aggressor. You are either the one responsible for initiating their agitation, or you are the one called in to take over for the person who initiated the agitation. Both enviable positions to find yourself in I know. Don’t you feel blessed?
If you are the focus of the threat and their subsequent reaction, your goal is to shift their focus off of you as the source, and onto something else. Assuming that you weren’t intentionally trying to provoke this person, you were likely delivering news or enforcing rules that has frustrated their ability to achieve their own goals. If they’re now threatening or intimidating you, they have most likely attached you (as a person) to their perception of the threat. You are now standing in their way, undermining their value system or preventing them from fulfilling an important need. Now they feel they must overcome your resistance. It sounds like a movie plot I know, but I find this to be the best way to visualize the dynamics that are happening. So, how do you shift their perspective? You start by empathizing with them. If you’re the one who set them off, you should already have a pretty good understanding of why they’re so upset. So, in your calm and controlled voice, let them know that you understand that this is very difficult for them. Without sounding defensive, you also want to remind them that you’re not personally responsible for what is happening. Offer to help them as best you can, in exchange for them speaking with you in a more appropriate manner. This approach enables you to shift from being an obstacle to a potential ally. Whether you can actually help them is irrelevant at this point. Your goal is to stop them from focusing their emotions on you directly. Once you cease being a threat, they should begin to gain back some of their rationality. Once they have de-escalated, continue to empathize and honestly try to help them solve their problem.
If you are called in to intervene after the commotion has already started, you have something of an advantage. But, you can blow it quickly if you enter into the situation the wrong way. Your goal is the same. To make sure they don’t view you as a part of the threat. If you represent the same team, group, organization, etc. that the individual is upset with, it’s likely that their first impression will be that reinforcements have been called in against them. This is a particularly big problem if you represent a higher authority (supervisor, police, security, etc.). I have had great success at inserting myself into the dispute by utilizing the universal tools I’ve already mentioned. As I approach, I introduce myself in a friendly tone of voice. Typically, the first thing I do is briefly explain my role and how that it requires me to provide assistance. I then ask them to explain to me what’s happened, in their words. Instead of me being a big shot, walking over and barking orders at them, I am genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say. If they begin to escalate and treat me as a threat, I remind them that I have only just arrived. I wasn’t a part of what originally set them off but want to try and help everyone work it out. But first I need to understand what has happened. The act of telling someone your side of the story and having that person actually listen has a great calming effect on people. Once they’ve finished telling me their side of the story, I make sure that I understood them correctly, then ask them what it is they are hoping to achieve. If I can help them, I do. If I can’t, I explain the reasons why, being sure to be empathetic with their situation. I will then explain my expectations of them, including the reasons why. You don’t have to solve their problem to de-escalate their behavior. The intent of the intervention is to guide them back into a rational state of mind. Every day we want things that we can’t have. As rational people, we understand that. We don’t always like it, but that’s life, right?
One final point I want to make before moving on to the second “secret” is that despite our best efforts, people do not always de-escalate in a calm manner. You must ALWAYS be watchful for signs of further escalation, or that the situation may turn violent. If you think there’s a chance, or you’re losing control of the situation, disengage immediately and get help. Some people may be too far gone emotionally to bring themselves under control. Other times, mental health issues, drugs or alcohol may be affecting their ability to rationalize and self-regulate. As much as we are all alike, we are also all very different. Someone exhibiting confrontational, and aggressive behavior in particular, is unpredictable and you must always put your safety first.
De-Escalation “Secret” #2: Maintain Self-Control
You now know that people behave in confrontational and aggressive ways because they are reacting to and defending themselves from a perceived threat. The good news is that with this knowledge, you are able to take deliberate action to reduce the intensity of the threat so that the person no longer feels like they have to defend themselves. The bad news is that you are susceptible to the same risks of escalating. When someone tries to challenge, frighten or intimidate you, which they will, your mind and body will respond to the threat. You won’t be of much use as a de-escalator if you start to escalate and lose rationality as well, will you? Effective de-escalation requires assessment, planning and flexibility. These are complex thought processes, none of which are available when we escalate emotionally. Just like the other person, our focus turns to defending and overcoming what we perceive to be a personal attack. What you end up with is at best an argument, and at worst a fight. Good luck preventing them from viewing you as a threat if this happens! When the gloves come off, bad things happen. You must be able to withstand the verbal onslaught, and the fear and frustration that comes with it. Being able to maintain your self-control is the single most important skill you need to develop. Everything hinges on your ability to avoid being outwardly triggered emotionally.
Think about an argument or confrontation that you have either witnessed or been directly involved in. I’ll bet it consisted primarily of verbal attacks and counter attacks, with each side trying to intimidate or otherwise harm the other in some way. It probably ended when one side felt like they had won the battle, or someone else intervened and broke it up. In de-escalation, only one side is acting this way. The other side (you) is responding contrary to what the angry side wants and expects. We’ve all had less than stellar moments where we’ve behaved in ways we’re not proud of. When it happens, we say and do things that we hope will hurt the other person. That’s what the person you’re trying to de-escalate wants too. They want to hurt and upset you. Understand that, and don’t let it happen.
If you’re calm and in control of yourself, you are in control of the situation. You have the ability to apply complex thinking to the situation and moderate your behavior to best suit your needs. By demonstrating appropriate behavior, you also set an example for the other person to follow. Another key benefit is how you appear to others who may be watching, compared to the agitated person. You are a professional and it’s important that you project that image. In the event that things to not end well, or a complaint is later filed, you can stand by your conduct in the face of great stress and fear!
An entire paper could be written on ways to improve our self-control, but I will share a few strategies that I have found helpful. I enter into these situations with an expectation that I will be threatened, cursed at, called names, etc. I already know that it isn’t about me, it’s about the threat. I am just a target. I am waiting for it and am seldom disappointed! Another thing to remember is that you now have an understanding of what really motivates this type of behavior, and you know that it is universal among our species. Once again, it’s not personal. You could also try to look at an intervention kind of like a game, where their objective is to make you angry, while yours is to make them calm. I don’t know about you, but I hate losing games! We all have our own triggers, and an agitated person will be searching for them. I encourage you to become aware of yours, so that you’re not caught off guard in an intervention. Other than that, give some thought to how you can self-regulate during an intense confrontation, and put those strategies into action. If you do find yourself escalating emotionally and losing control, remove yourself from the situation before you make matters even worse for everyone. I’ve had to do it more than once. It happens. We’re all human.
Now that you’re in on our “secrets”, I hope that you feel a little more comfortable with the idea of facing an angry, confrontational or aggressive person. I have yet to meet someone who finds these situations enjoyable, no matter how many times they’ve been involved in them. But the better you understand what is happening, why it is happening and what your goal is as an intervenor, the more effective you will be. Arguments and fights are chaotic, with both sides struggling for control. An intervention on the other hand is organized, with control resting in the hands of the intervenor at all times. So, remember these “secrets” the next time you find yourself face to face with an agitated person. Shift their perspective of you from source of threat to potential ally, by utilizing a calm empathetic approach aimed at building rapport. Once they stop viewing you as a threat, you will have a much easier time resolving the actual issue at hand. You can do it!