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March 15, 2021

De-escalation: What It Is and Why We Need It

In this blog article you will learn techniques to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.

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A good security or law officer knows that dangerous situations are more than just tests of brute force. Being well-prepared for the unexpected, and being able to make split-second decisions that put the physical well-being of others, including those posing a threat, first, is a skill that takes careful practice.

What is De-escalation?

De-escalation is the use of verbal and nonverbal psychological techniques to take control of a situation without having to resort to a potentially dangerous physical altercation. It can sometimes be compared to the act of “talking down” someone in the midst of a violent or disruptive outburst, though that is an oversimplification.

Good de-escalation takes into account the actual threat posed by the perpetrator, as well as the risk of bystanders being caught in harm’s way, and adjusts accordingly. For example, de-escalating a situation where someone is in the midst of a mental health episode and is causing a disruption is different from de-escalating a situation where someone is threatening harm to others, especially if they’re armed.

Though physical intervention will sometimes be unavoidable, successful de-escalation can help protect yourself and others in uncertain situations.

Breaking it Down

De-escalation is built around two simple ideals: basic dignity and empathy.

Basic dignity means keeping the perpetrators humanity at the forefront of your mind. Remembering that they are a person acting out rather than a nameless threat can keep you from making knee-jerk decisions that lead to more harm than good. Again, this isn’t to say that a someone actively committing physical harm to yourself or others should be reasoned with, but rather that reasoning with someone who is simply being disruptive or making threats can stop physical harm before it happens.

Empathy is an extension of basic dignity that allows you to understand from a basic standpoint, why someone may be acting the way that they are. Empathy can allow you to assess a situation in more detail, understand motive, and base your decisions off of all of the information presented by the way someone is acting and what they are saying.
Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which is the act of acknowledging hardship and offering comfort. Although sympathy may be have a place in some situations, you can have empathy and respect someone’s dignity, all while staying goal-oriented and not offering sympathy.

While it may seem fruitless and even dangerous to take a moment to consider someone’s emotions and humanity in a high-stress situation, understanding of de-escalation will allow you to process these thoughts quickly and instinctively. De-escalation can stop an act of violence before it happens by removing the perpetrator’s motivation.

Methods of De-escalation

We’ve gathered a few techniques that are useful in your arsenal of de-escalation skills. These are by no means every method available, nor are they the right ones for every situation.

Active Listening
Active listening shows that you are taking in what is being said to you and considering it seriously. Sometimes just having their desire and motivation acknowledged is enough for someone to cease causing a scene. Active listening can be done physically, through eye contact, nodding, facial expressions, and more. It can also be done verbally, by responding with acknowledgement of what has been said, and by repeating the ending or gist of sentences back to the speaker to let them know you’ve heard them.

Re-focusing
Re-focusing is a means of gently steering the conversation back to the issue at hand, and/or towards something positive. For instance, if the perpetrator continuously goes off on tangents, or talks about something they want in the future, saying something like “I hear you, but I want to know what I can do to help you right now,” or “Tell me more about what you need in this moment,” can keep them focused and resolve the problem faster.

Deflection
Deflection is the simple act of ignoring any attempt to provoke you. By not acknowledging verbal attacks or threats meant to incite you, you retain control over the situation and lessen the power the perpetrator feels they have.

Giving Choices
Giving a perpetrator two safe options to choose from may be a good way to ease them out of situations where they feel cornered, or as though they have no options. This could also be a good opportunity to get them out of a space where they may pose a threat to bystanders. For instance, asking an unarmed person if they would like to continue the conversation outside of an establishment or if they would feel better staying where they are and having others leave. This small bit of control can bring someone down from a panicked state to a more level-headed space.

It’s important to keep in mind that your attitude, both physically and tonally can have a big impact on the effectiveness of these techniques. Only when used earnestly, with safety and empathy in mind, do they have the best chance of being effective.

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