De-escalation Tips to Help Defuse Potentially Violent Situations in the Workplace

What is de-escalation, why is it important, and how is it done?

According to these authors, de-escalation typically refers to a process used to prevent, reduce, or manage behaviours associated with conflict during an interaction between two or more individuals. In other words, de-escalation techniques can help empower emotionally distressed clients to manage their emotions and regain personal control. De-escalation training is one component of a comprehensive violence prevention program that can help to prevent and mitigate violence in the workplace.

Unfortunately, violence continues to be a pervasive problem in Canadian workplaces, significantly impacting workers’ physical and psychological health. All workers have the right to a workplace free from violence. Workers also have a responsibility to meet the needs of their clients. De-escalation skills can help workers safely respond to conflict thereby reducing the risk of violence in their workplaces.

De-escalation requires patience, partnering, and a sincere willingness to help. It requires empathy, compassion, and an understanding of anger. It requires workers to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and realize that the client who is angry and escalating may be feeling helpless, hopeless, shamed, stigmatized, violated, or victimized – or a combination of all of these. There are many different de-escalation techniques and not every strategy will work in all situations. Here are a few that may help to prevent a situation from escalating out of control.

Listen. Listen closely. Listen for content. Listen with compassion. Listen with your ears and your eyes. Pay attention to not only the words that you hear but also to a client’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Clients who are emotionally heightened often have difficulty explaining themselves. Remember your job is to try to help your client feel heard and understood.

Speak. Speak concisely. Speak calmly. Say their name and pronounce it right. Avoid giving too much information at once. Clients who are escalating can’t follow long or complicated explanations and have a narrow range of attention.

Understand. Understand that both environmental and cultural contexts affect communication. Understand that the words you use may be unfamiliar to the client and may be potentially offensive. Understand that the environment may affect your ability to communicate effectively and may affect the ability of the client to hear your message. Understand that there are physiological processes happening in the brain and body of a client who is escalating that may make it difficult for them to listen, reason and interact appropriately. Understand that clients who are emotionally heightened have a narrow range of attention and that repetition is essential to successful de-escalation.

Offer. Offer choice. Offer optimism. Offer food and drink. Offering choice to a client who is distressed is a means of empowerment.

Set clear limits. Respectfully. Confidently. Clients should be informed of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour and consequences in a non-confrontational and non-authoritarian manner.

Respect. Respect personal space. Respect yourself and your team. Know your limits and recognize when you need to seek additional help.

Watch. Watch for warning signs of escalation such as pacing, pounding tables, raised voices, rapid breathing, and repetitive movements. Watch yourself and notice when you become defensive, dismissive, disrespectful and display demeaning behaviour towards the client.

Choose. Choose to be present for this encounter. Choose to take several breaths before responding. Choose to slow down. Choose an approach and don’t freeze up. Choose silence when appropriate. Choose to see that people are doing the best they can to get their needs met. Choose curiosity. Choose working together. Choose to focus on feelings first and deal with the facts later. Choose confidence and the belief that you can get through this. Choose to find common ground and something to agree upon no matter how small.

Avoid. Avoid confrontational language. Avoid making demands. Avoid taking things personally. Avoid overreacting. Avoid physical contact with the client who is escalating. Avoid arguing, interrupting, sarcasm, raising your voice and telling a client not to feel what they are feeling. Avoid using the word no if you can.

Be safe. Your safety and the safety of others is the highest priority. Disengage if there is extreme escalation, and/or there is a risk of imminent violence. Calling the police may be necessary in certain situations.

Take care of yourself. This work is challenging. You won’t always get it right and de-escalation doesn’t always work.

Debrief. With your team and the client, if possible, when they have settled. Debriefing with your colleagues can reduce the possibility of psychological harm, encourages reflection, can help to identify what went well and where improvements can be made. A client may be better able to explain why they were upset once they have settled. Together you can discuss coping strategies that can be used should they become distressed in the future.

Workplace violence is a growing challenge and a comprehensive approach to prevention includes worker training and evaluation. It is important to note that more rigorous studies are called for to help determine the efficacy and effectiveness of de-escalation policies and training. However, an interactional approach to de-escalation using assertiveness and interpersonal communication can help workers respond to conflict and help to keep them safe. De-escalation when done well preserves the dignity of those involved and ensures the safety of all.