Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Basics of Verbal De-escalation

So there I was trying to stop WWIII in the parking lot trying to protect some jerk that didn't really deserve it. I barely even knew the guy had just met him that night, it was Halloween. I was sitting at bar a little way away from there when he and his girlfriend walked in. They were with this other guy that I actually knew fairly well. They were trying to talk me into going to this club that I hated but there would be a lot of girls there. They offered to drive and all that and they eventually talked me into it.

So we got to the club and everything went well we shut it down and were talking about getting a room at the hotel across the highway. I was right outside the door talking to a girl when I saw new friend number one(NFN1) talking to some guy he knew, apparently. It didn't seem like anything stood out I was just kind of checking it with my peripheral vision because I heard something about somebody pulling a gun on someone's dad which was odd.

Then I notice a third party come into that conversation and get a little too close to NFN1. His head is moving like a woodpecker or some kind of hen pecking at something and he looked at NFN1 and said," You pulled a gun on his dad? Man, that's messed up" then was saying something inaudible so I turned quickly to intervene but not in time. The next thing I heard was the familiar clacking noise of a forearm hitting a jaw cleaning and third party man dropped like a ton of bricks and not moving on the sidewalk.

First people rushed to check him then most turned on NFN1. Even worse NFN1 was talking smack to everyone pissing them off even more. I jumped in front of NFN1 with my arms out at my sides (like a hira no kamae posture for those in the know). Basically I was using my body to move him backwards towards the car and my arms to monitor his movements and keep him behind my without looking at him because I had to have my eyes on the crowd.

The bouncer on duty wasn't helping; he was acting like a punk because he was scared of the crowd. After I got NFN1 behind me to shut the hell up I started to use verbal de-escalation to keep the crowd from attacking giving time for the police to get there and make a report. In that example the crowd wasn't mad at me they were mad at someone else which helped but the only thing that saved a parking lot melee that night was verbal de-escalation. It is an incredible tool to have and NFN1 obviously didn't possess it so I had to do something myself. Had he possessed those skills my night would have been a lot less stressful. The following are some simple basics for verbal de-escalation:

The first thing is to know when you are being threatened. In all honesty you will feel it. If something doesn't feel right then it probably isn't. We are sometimes taught in our lives to ignore our instincts but we have them for a reason. They are there to help protect us and you should listen to them. If you feel threatened then it's real to you therefore it's a threat.

Verbal De-escalation isn't about self defence; it's more about self protection. Self defence for our definition is when you have to use physical force against an imminent attack. This is more about self protection which is not making the 10 mistakes you probably made before violence ensued. If you look at the example I gave up above and think,"well I don't go to places like that or hang out with people like that so I don't need this stuff," then I think you need to rethink that. It comes in handy anywhere there could be a conflict.

A teacher disciplining a student;
A parent with a problem child;
A stewardess with an angry passenger;
A manager with a disgruntled employee.

That list could go on forever, workplace violence is on the rise. Years ago before I was able to run Stonewall Tactical full time I worked as a team leader in a factory that made DVDs to pay the bills and did private security on weekends. At the factory management was horrible and stress was at an all time high. When employees would get pushed to the edge I'd call them over and take them for a walk. I'd let them vent for a bit then use verbal de-escalation to calm them down so they basically didn't attack me and get fired.

You never know some people or what they are capable of doing so it has to be taken seriously. I remember there was this one guy that flipped out a couple times and I'd have to walk him around the complex and calm him down. Other than that he was always smiling and making jokes, a real jovial guy. He was the kind of guy you think wouldn't hurt a fly. A few months later after he left the company he brutally murdered his girlfriend and stuffed her body in his closet. He got caught when the neighbours complained about the smell; he's currently still in prison. So this is a skill you should really take very seriously.

To me this is always better than physical force. Physical force should always be your last resort when everything else breaks down. You don't want to risk hurting someone or getting injured if you don't have to do so. Not to mention all the fallout that could ensue such as civil suits or angry friends. So let's take a look at some tactics:

The first one is a big one…

Listen - If you take a pissed off person and try to talk over them they are only going to become more angry. You aren't going to accomplish anything by being dismissive of someone else's feelings. You have to empathize and try putting yourself in their shoes. When I worked in that factory this was the main tactic that I used once they got it out of their system then it was much easier to calm them down.

Distraction - If they are hell-bent on flipping out over something and focused then break that concentration just doing it in a challenging way. I once used this tactic by asking about a guy's pit bull and getting him to talk about that. It's a way of establishing a rapport with them and establishing a commonality. Another time I offered a guy a beer. It's kind of hard to flip out on a guy that just gave you a beer. That's just a couple of examples but its tactic that can work.

Humor - This is a great tool to put someone at ease but use it sparingly. I mean if you’re not funny normally you’re not going to become funny under stress. I once had two friends arguing and I stood up and farted. Cleared the whole room and they were so wrapped up in that they forgot about being mad. You could also say that's a distraction but trust me it was funny.

Empathy - I mentioned this once already but it's very important. How can you calm someone down when you don't even understand why they are angry? Put yourself in their shoes, they aren't mad for nothing. This goes back to listening; if you challenge them by basically invalidating why they are angry then you are not going to be successful.  Don't be judgmental, try to understand.

Motivation - If you’re a teacher try to refocus them on something positive and motivate them and help build them up. Angry emotions tend to come from someone who is hurt or feels disrespected in some way. You need to know this.

These are some good tactics to use and I've used most of them. If you really think about it all you’re really doing for the most part is not being an ass. Don't prejudge someone with the whole, "Oh good Lord here they come with that same old crap again." People are the center of their universe. Maybe it's something else or maybe if you’re the focus of the crap find out why the same crap keeps happening. I can't stress this enough. Listen! Don't try to be domineering and order them or threaten them in some way. Don't make it a competition and start arguing; put your ego aside.

Getting into a power struggle isn't going to de-escalate anything. Definitely don't criticize someone who is always angry. Don't start name calling and don't try to invalidate their anger. These things are barriers that you put up and can make the situation much worse. I've seen it a million times, "You did this!"..."Oh well you did that other thing".... It just goes on and on and gets worse and worse. Don't put up those barriers.

Try using calming statements like:

I want to help you.
What can I do to make this right?
Tell me more so I can understand.
I understand what you’re saying.
Let's see what we can do to make it better.

Note: Try to understand how they feel but don't actually say out loud to them the phrase - I understand how you feel. If they thought you could possibly understand how they felt there's a good chance they wouldn't be angry in the first place, you don't want to open that can of worms.

These are a few of the statements that aren't challenging or insulting but I think you get where I'm coming from on that. Also make sure you’re being attentive. You need to actually be listening not just hearing. Don't be thinking about what you’re going to be doing next week or somewhere else you wish you were because people can tell when they are just being pacified.

Make sure you use eye contact and neutral gestures such as nodding or asking neutral questions from time to time without interrupting them or stepping over what they are saying. You can do things like take something they are saying and repeating it back to them but wording it differently. This way they know your listening to them and trying to understand them. When you’re doing this don't be fiddling with a pen or playing a video game or watching television; don't multi-task give them your full attention.

Remember 80% of all communication is nonverbal so don't communicate the wrong message. People are more observant that you think and angry people don't always listen to what is being said so your body language could be doing the real talking so watch that message!

Here are a few body movements that send the wrong message as well as a few helpful hints:

Finger pointing can escalate something quickly so don't do it.
Shoulder shrugging makes it look like you don't give a damn.
Clenching your teeth makes it look like your mad and maybe you want to fight.
A fake smile would honestly make me want to hit you more.
Quick movements could surprise or scare someone making them feel threatened.
Raising one eyebrow like can appear condescending or stern.
Both eyebrows raised could spur them on so keep those eyebrows in check.
A hard stare can appear threatening.
Closing your eyes longer than normal will do the same as a shoulder shrug.
Keep your hands visible.
Don't invade their personal space and keep a distance from them far enough way they can't grab or kick you.
Keep your hands to yourself don't touch them that could really set them off.
Don't raise or lower your voice talk slowly in a soothing nature.
Don't do anything that is disrespectful.

Another thing that helps is try to talk with them somewhere away from other people. Onlookers can try to instigate things and be real jerks. People love seeing others go at it especially in this day and age. If at all possible bring another trusted person to talk with them usually when two people are talking with someone there's less change of violence. Not always....but usually. Also the same tips listed for body language as far as staying neutral you should watch for those same cues in the other person as well.

In closing what it all boils down to is listening and actually giving a damn. Sincerity goes a long way. Don't be dismissive or try to insult someone's intelligence by pacifying them and thinking they won't notice.

Listen...Listen...and Listen. These skills are not difficult to master and frankly a lot of people do these things naturally and if you don't now you have some skills to work on. Be Safe! 

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