The 8 most effective de-escalation techniques in corrections

The “big eight” take training and practice to master and are reminders of the challenges associated with working in corrections


Confronting angry or irate offenders may be among the most difficult duties in corrections. It’s a learned skill and the ability to successfully achieve de-escalation can have definite safety and security implications. A person’s ability to effectively de-escalate an inmate confrontation can mean the difference between a use of force situation or a peaceful resolution.

There are dozens of techniques that can be employed to achieve effective de-escalation. Various training organizations package their skills and techniques based on what has proven effective. The one thing missing is an explanation as to why these techniques work.

The Big Eight

With the liability and risk associated with use-of-force incidents, it’s important that correctional staff become master communicators. (Photo/Pixabay)
With the liability and risk associated with use-of-force incidents, it’s important that correctional staff become master communicators. (Photo/Pixabay)

When an individual becomes extremely irate, they begin using their core brain or "alligator brain." This part of the brain includes the limbic system, brain stem structures and the amygdala that drive anger and aggression.

Many de-escalation techniques that have proven effective over time are effective because they re-engage the frontal lobe of the brain that regulates impulse control, rational thought and awareness of consequences. The following are the Big Eight techniques that officers should include in their de-escalation toolbox.

1. Listen

Listening allows an irate person to "flood," which is a means of purging angry energy. As long as the inmate’s behavior is not posing a safety or security risk, allowing them to vent may help them return to a state of equilibrium.

Seemingly simple, listening is a difficult skill for many to master. This can be especially true in an occupation where a large portion of our success is dependent upon providing directives to inmates.

2. Acknowledge

Relaying that you understand what a person is meaning or feeling helps by validating their emotions. Acknowledgement occurs when you legitimately understand the person’s anger. You could then respond with, "Wow, I can see how something like that could cause some anger." Or you might say, "If that happened to me, I might be angry too." 

This confirms the legitimacy of the emotion, but not the behavior. You want the angry person to realize that being angry isn’t the problem; the problem is the way they’re choosing to act out those angry feelings.

3. Agree

When attempting to diffuse someone’s anger, it’s helpful to find some truth in what’s being said and agree with it. Often when people are angry about something, there is at least some truth in what they’re saying. When attempting to diffuse someone’s anger, it’s important to verify that truth and agree with it. When you agree with the truth in the angry person’s tirade, you take away the resistance and consequently eliminate the fuel for the fire. Like acknowledgement, agreement also validates their emotions.

It’s important not to confuse "agreeing" with validating inappropriate behavior. Think of it as simply giving the inmate the right to be angry. An example may include, "I agree Mr. Jones, having a roommate that snores would make it difficult to sleep." The officer can then follow up with the solution or an alternative which doesn’t mean the offender will get his/her way.

4. Apologize

Never apologize for an imaginary wrong, but a sincere apology for anything in the situation that was unjust can build credibility in your attempt to de-escalate. This is a simple acknowledgement that something occurred which could reasonably cause anger.  For example, "I’m sorry your cellmate snores."

If you can’t find anything to apologize for you may say, "I’m so sorry you’re having such an awful day" or "I’m sorry the situation has you so frustrated." 

Apologizing lets the inmate know that you’re empathetic to what they’re going through and they may cease to direct their anger toward the person attempting to help.

5. Clarification

There may be a natural instinct to assume you know what a person means. Highly agitated individuals may not articulate themselves in a way that was intended or they may generally have difficulty expressing themselves. In these instances, the only sure way is to directly seek clarification.

For example, an inmate might say, "You need to get him out of this cell before I snap." The officer might think he knows what the inmate is saying.

Instead of just making an assumption the officer could restate, "Are you saying you’re going to do something to your cellmate?"

The inmate may say, "Yes." Or perhaps, "No, I just don’t want to get mad and say something that could get me in trouble and mess up my parole."

In either case, the officer has shown interest in the inmate and has kept the lines of communication open for additional dialogue.

He’s also given the offender the chance to clarify his message which can also be done by paraphrasing the offender's statement, "So what you’re saying is that if we don’t move your cellmate out of the cell you’re going to harm him."

It’s possible that once the inmate hears his own words reflected back, he or she may want to re-think their delivery.

6. Choices and Consequences

Corrections involves enforcing conditions, and consequences for breaking those conditions. This makes it easy to fall into a challenging posture with offenders. Presenting choices involves defining conditions and consequences without threatening and makes inmates aware that they have a choice in how they handle their behavior. Officers should exercise caution and not make offers or suggest alternatives if it’s likely they will not be granted or approved. Be sure the offender knows the suggested choices are choices that they have to make.

Presenting choices and consequences may sound something like: "There is no need to continue this conversation. You need to return to your cell and we can discuss this further during your next yard time. If you fail to return to your cell, you’ll receive a report."

There are times in corrections when delivering authoritative commands are required (i.e. "Stop or you’re going to get pepper sprayed!"). However, an overwhelming percentage of interactions with irate inmates are resolved through effective staff communication. The goal is to increase that percentage when situations allow.

7. Sequence Questions

Sequence questions get the inmate to engage other parts of the brain needed to think and formulate answers. Asking an inmate where he or she lives may be enough to engage other parts of the brain; however, these could be automatic responses as well depending on how long they’ve lived in the same cell or unit. Asking an individual to play back the sequence of events or asking an unexpected question may prove useful as well.

These open-ended questions often get the offender actively involved in his own problem-solving and can prove empowering if done correctly.

8. Suggestibility

When individuals are highly agitated they may be less likely to respond to commands and orders. They may, however, "fall into suggestions," meaning they may act out on suggestions without even knowing they’re doing what they’re told. These suggestions may be verbal or non-verbal. One verbal means of suggestibility may be to present a "Question Statement."

Similar to a rhetorical question that is asked to make a point rather than to elicit an answer, a "Question Statement" suggests that the person do the action that is presented as a question. This can also take emphasis off of what you’re actually asking the offender to do.

For example, saying "Would you mind putting your ID on your chest for me please," makes it difficult to determine if you’re asking the person if he minds putting the ID on his chest, if he would put it on his chest, or if he’s being told to put it on his chest. Saying, "Would you step over here please," may work better than "Get over here, now!" If an offender enters your office and you say "Sit down!" you may get more challenging behavior than if you simply pulled up a chair and gestured as if to say "have a seat."

Conclusion

With the liability and risk associated with use-of-force incidents, it’s important that correctional staff become master communicators. This skill set must include de-escalation. By understanding the physiological characteristics of anger, officers are better equipped to participate in the "rewiring" essential to restoring reasoning. These skills take training and practice to master and are reminders of the many challenges associated with working in corrections.

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