THE MAGAZINE

Show No Fear

By Kevin McCaffery

The importance of a measured response to threats or violence in the workplace has never been higher, both in terms of potential liability for an employer who doesn’t take the appropriate steps to safeguard staff and, of course, for the person actually at risk. Articles on workplace violence have historically focused on managerial strategies—how the organization should prevent, prepare for, and respond to incidents. While an organizational plan is critical, it doesn’t provide much solace for the person faced with defusing a threatening situation. Front-line employees need information on how to manage events as they unfold. That is the intent of this article, to provide the people in the middle of it all some tips on how they can manage these difficult situations (and by extension, minimize the potential for harm or for a recurrence).

This advice is based on an eight-step de-escalation process that I have found to be effective. I developed it over the course of my 13 years’ experience as a hostage negotiator. These concepts have been specifically designed around managing workplace disruptions ranging from minor workplace disagreements to assaults.

By systematically moving through these steps, you maximize your own safety and the effectiveness of your position when dealing with others. I’ll illustrate this process loosely in the context of a more serious incident I was involved in as a negotiator dealing with a man who had barricaded himself into his home and was threatening to kill his wife who was about to leave him. 

Maintain Control

Before getting into the eight-step process, I’ll present some information about maintaining personal control if and when you are confronted. When a threat is made, the person making it is looking for confirmation that the threat had its desired effect. What’s the point of making a threat if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, right?

But how will the person measure the response? Simply by the physical and verbal cues given by the receiver of the threat, known as a “fear response.” If I threaten you, I want to see you back away, avert your eye contact, cry, plead, or shake. I want to know my threat worked.

Therefore, the best response is to deny the aggressor what he or she seeks—that fear response. When you deny the aggressor what he or she seeks, the potency of the threat withers. I’m not suggesting that someone being threatened won’t be afraid, but that person should not show it.

Ideally, you should remain calm and professional while acknowledging what was said. For example, in reply to a threat to “destroy your life like you did mine,” you might respond: “I can see you are frustrated with this decision, but we’ve worked closely over the past year, and I know what you are saying now just isn’t like you. Why don’t we meet tomorrow and go over this when we’ve both had an opportunity to consider everything.”

Notice that the threat is addressed, but it’s addressed in a manner that suggests confidence, not fear.

Many people faced with that type of confrontation think the best approach is to ignore the comment, but that response suggests fear on your part. You also should not laugh it off or counter the threat with one of your own. Both of these responses may, and often will, beget an escalated response by the person.

How do you gain confidence that you will be able to remain calm in the face of a threatening situation? This is an often overlooked, but critical aspect of conflict management. Most training focuses on the other person but overlooks the actual target of the threats—you.

Someone is angry with you; many people in this situation will have a tendency to get angry right back. However, never is it more important for you to remain calm and professional than at times like these.

The other typical response people experience during these situations is that their minds go blank. They can’t think of what to say or do.

Thankfully, you can prevent either of these from happening to you by doing something called crisis rehearsal. This mental exercise is predicated on the established fact that mentally rehearsing something beforehand improves performance.

Here’s how it works: Think of three or four different situations you might conceivably find yourself faced with at work involving a confrontation. Next, create a mental “movie” for each of these situations. How you set up this mental movie is important. It should be constructed from a third-person perspective where the “camera” captures the entire situation. It’s like watching a TV show starring yourself.

The movie you create must be comprehensive. You will want to consider what specific things you will say or do when dealing with the other person. Think about how you would move if the situation worsens, your proximity to the door, keeping something between yourself and the other person, what you would say if the person began yelling or threatening you, and how you would maintain calm.

In your visualization, your movie must end well—the coworker apologizes for his or her behavior or the client leaves peacefully. Your entire movie might last 60 seconds. Do this for each of the three or four incidents you imagine. Rehearse each of these movies once a day for 20 days. Four minutes a day for 20 days isn’t much to ask. Do it while you commute to work. Then just let it be.

Months later, if you do find yourself in a threatening situation, your mental training will kick in and you simply act out what you considered when all the stress of the moment isn’t hanging over your head. That is so much easier to do than attempting to think of what to say or do when you’re in the middle of it all. Your movie doesn’t have to be a perfect fit with the situation you find yourself in. As long as it’s a reasonably close approximation, it will work for you.

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