Verbal de-escalation: The most important skill an officer can have, part 1

All too often officers say all the wrong things at the wrong time, serving only to escalate a situation to the point of physical confrontation


With no effort at all, your mouth can get you into a lot of trouble.   All too often officers say all the wrong things at the wrong time, serving only to escalate a situation to the point of physical confrontation.  Anyone can go hands-on; it takes skill to de-escalate a situation with words.  In order to be truly effective, verbal de-escalation, like any skill, requires practice.  The next time you are presented with an argumentative or non-compliant subject consider the following points. 

First and foremost, remain calm

The late Dr. George Thompson taught us that one of the seven things you never say to anyone is “Calm Down”.  If we want someone to calm down we must remain calm ourselves.  If you allow insults, threats, or emotions to get the best of you then your authority has been compromised and there is little chance of resolving the situation peacefully.  It is only by remaining calm ourselves that we seize control of the situation.  

People’s natural inclination is to adopt the behavior of those around them.  It is easy to enter into a shouting match with an irate individual; it takes far more discipline to remain calm in the face of aggression.  Likewise, it is difficult for an irate individual to remain so when the person he is engaged with is relaxed and speaking in a calm reassuring tone.  By approaching the situation with this concept in mind it is possible to influence another’s behavior by controlling our own (Thompson, 2005).

Designate one person to speak 

This is an important consideration in both verbal and physical confrontations.  Designating one speaker eliminates conflicting messages and provides the subject with a single point of contact.  This is especially important when communicating with an emotionally or mentally compromised individual.  When a person’s faculties are impaired by emotions, drugs or mental illness, multiple speakers can be counterproductive leading to confusion and frustration.  Confusion and frustration can cause a person to shut down or become aggressive.  One person speaking in a clear, calm manner provides the subject with a single point of focus and time to process the information being presented to them.

Eliminate unnecessary conflict

If there is conflict between the subject and a particular staff member or inmate, remove that person from the situation.  In such a scenario, it is almost impossible to gain the subject’s attention while the other party is still present.  

If the subject expresses a particular bias, it may be necessary to find an alternative speaker.  Conflicts are often racial or gender motivated.  Gender bias can go either way but I’ve often found that a female officer will have more success with an irate male.  

It may be helpful to find an officer with whom the subject can identify.  In a correctional setting it is often possible to find an officer who has already built a rapport with the subject.  An aggravated subject is more likely to comply with the demands of an officer with whom he has a positive history.

Don’t compromise safety

It is important that while we make an attempt to defuse a situation verbally that we don’t let our guard down.  Listen and watch for indicators of impending violence. As we engage these individuals in dialogue we must make safety a top priority.  We are all familiar with the blatant threats made by subjects in custody.  It’s the more subtle indicators which can make the difference between being prepared and being caught off guard.  Phrases like “I have to get out of here” often precipitate panicked attempts to escape. 

Watch for cues.  I’ve heard time and again an emphasis on watching the subject’s hands; “It’s hands that kill not eyes”.  To truly be aware one must watch all body language.  They eyes, feet and hips can give away just as much if not more than the hands.  The obvious signs like taking a fighting stance, clinching fists or reaching for a weapon are familiar to the layperson.  The subtle cues take experience to detect.  Are his hips pointed toward an escape route?  Is he looking at a doorway or your firearm?  These cues can be indicators of a pending attack or escape attempt.

To be continued…

So far we have discussed the need to present a calm demeanor, eliminate unnecessary conflict, establish a designated speaker, and maintain your guard.  Next we will explore the importance of listening and learn how to close the deal. 

Reference:

Thompson, G. (2005). 7 things never to say to anyone, and why (part 1). Retrieved from http://www.correctionsone.com/corrections/articles/1841135-7-things-never-to-say-to-anyone-and-why-Part-1/

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