Presenting a calm exterior is the key to success in this eight-step approach to de-escalating a threatening situation.
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.
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.
Step 1: Identify Yourself
If this is a first-meeting scenario, offering your name is a good starting point.
Using your first name confers three benefits. First, it demonstrates confidence in yourself. People who are apprehensive or on the defensive are characteristically unwilling to give their name.
Second, it helps establish the beginnings of rapport and identify you as a person, not some figurehead for an organization. As a negotiator, it’s especially important that people relate to me as a person, not an official, because the other person I’m dealing with may have had negative experiences with the police, and that’s something I want to distance myself from as much as possible.
Third, giving your name provides an opportunity to find out who is confronting you. After you’ve introduced yourself, ask for the other person’s name. If you get it, use it. Psychologically, people like the sound of their own name—it’s called a “stroke”—which also builds more rapport.
Step 2: Hear Them Out
When people are upset, they want to be heard. It doesn’t matter if you already know what they are upset about, let them say their piece. In the hostage example, I knew what was happening, but it’s always good to get the information firsthand whenever possible. Even if you’ve talked with the person before, you can never be sure the next time won’t be a little different. Every little bit of intelligence you gather helps in finding solutions.
In my example, the man knew full well he was in a dire situation, however, speaking his mind helped to rationalize why he took the course of action he did. And after he spoke, he was more willing to listen to what I had to say. (We assume a far less dire situation here.)
Letting them talk is one thing; letting them vent is another. Conventional wisdom advises that you let the person vent when they are upset. Let them scream and rant, and when they finish, you are better able to engage in a reasonable conversation.
While this advice may be sound in most cases, it doesn't fit every case. Venting can make a bad situation worse. I can’t tell you when you shouldn’t let someone vent, but you might want to limit venting if the person has a violent history or your intuition tells you the situation is escalating. If either condition is met, venting can escalate into much worse.
Step 3: Paraphrase
This fairly standard notion is to restate, in your own words, what you understand the problem or concern to be. You should quote the person exactly if you can and also include an emotional component to your paraphrase, like “I get the sense you are very frustrated by what happened.”
I avoid terminology and descriptions of an aggressive nature. I don’t use words like “angry.” I believe this sort of language can implant the notion that the person should be angry. Using terminology that downplays the event, such as “frustrated” instead of “angry,” is a better option.
When you paraphrase, open with a comment that goes something like this: “Let me be sure I understand what you just said, is that alright?” This phrase is significant for two reasons. First, “Let me be sure I understood what you just said,” shows concern and empathy. I’ve never received a negative response to it. If a person takes the time to explain a problem, you can be certain that they want to know they have been understood.
The second part of that statement, “is that okay?” is also important. Get a verbal affirmative response to that question. This step helps prevent interruptions from the other person. You are now in a position to remind someone who is interrupting you that he or she has agreed to let you speak. It’s difficult for people to challenge what they already said.
Step 4: Explain Your Position
Now comes the point where you ask the other person to do what you want them to do. But don’t just ask the person; set it up to maximize the persuasiveness of your appeal. This is called “tightening the noose,” and it is made up of three elements: the ‘yes set’ (two to three yeses that help set the tone); a fact; and finally, your request.
The easiest way to explain this is by way of example. In my hostage situation I would say: “Bob, am I right to think you want this to be over as quickly as possible?” (“Yes”) “This is the first time we’ve ever met or spoken to each other?” (“Yes”) “Then, you know I have nothing against you personally?” (“Yes,”) This is a yes set.
Now I continue: “I’m sure you’re already aware of police protocol.” (Even if they aren’t, it still implants the notion I’m being truthful with the person and boosts their own ego.) “We can’t just ‘go away’ until this gets resolved.” (There’s the fact.) “Well, you can make all this happen, what I need for you to do is to come outside.” (There’s the suggestion.)
Notice, I’m not asking that he “surrender.” It’s demeaning to surrender, instead he “comes out.” It’s not a “hostage taking” either. It’s a “situation.” I don’t insult his intelligence; I stroke it.
It’s as much about how you ask for something as what you ask for. So you make your request, whatever that may be. If the person cooperates, you’re done, if not, move to the next step.
Step 5: Explain Positive Options
Show how the other person stands to gain by cooperating with you. People are self-centered by nature, so exploit it. Weave in two or three positive reasons why the person should cooperate, and then make your request again.
Back to the hostage situation: “Bob, this situation isn’t going to go away by itself, but we can end it all right away and move forward to get the help and attention you deserve. Don’t forget, Bob, nobody has been hurt yet, so while this isn’t the best situation for you to be in, it definitely could be a lot worse. I’ll also be sure to note in my report your cooperation in all this—you have my personal commitment on that.” (I find that it is very persuasive when dealing with people to make a “personal commitment” to them). “Now what I need you to do is come outside.”
If the person cooperates, you’re done. If not, move to the next step.
Step 6: Explain Negative Options
The previous step—number five—highlights what the person can gain by cooperation. This step lays out what the person stands to lose by refusing to cooperate. Psychologically, people are often more motivated to avoid loss than they are to gain reward. This is an important tenet to remember.
You now identify two to three negatives associated with not cooperating and add them into your discussion. You could even take the positive reasons in step five and recycle them from the opposite perspective in step six.
Another powerful tactic is to ask the other person what the negative consequences are if a resolution can’t be reached. Just ask them, “You tell me, what do you think will happen if we can’t resolve this situation?” If they answer your question, then the psychological persuasiveness of their response becomes very powerful because it isn’t you telling that person what the negatives are, it’s him telling you.
Remember, it’s difficult for anyone to challenge what they themselves have said. The other advantage to Bob answering the question is that he might even suggest negatives that may not have occurred to you. He’s actually helping your case without realizing it.
Back to my conversation: “Bob, if we can’t get this settled, things move out of my control. I understand you are going through a difficult separation, but none of this will help your case. The entire process will bog down in terms of time and money, and any police intervention that follows will only help your wife. Let’s end it now before it gets to that stage.”
In reality, it already has gotten to that stage, but it would not be helpful to point that out. I always try to give the person a sense of control over their decision-making process, even if it’s only the illusion of control.
Make your request again. If the person cooperates, you’re done, if not, move on.
Step 7: Last Chance
At this point, you are nearly out of options, but you are giving the person one final opportunity to cooperate. Try something like “Is there anything I can say or do that will get you to do what was requested?” Probably the answer will be “no,” but sometimes something reasonable is suggested.
When I asked this of Bob, he replied, “If I come out, will you let me speak to my mother?”
If it is at all possible, I would grant this type of request, because it offers a simple solution that makes the problem go away. Note, in a police-interaction situation, I don’t want to lie or break my promise if possible, because there might always be a “next time” somewhere down the road, and if I lie to Bob today, chances are he won’t forget that. And if there’s a future negotiation with Bob, that negotiator will have an especially difficult time undoing the damage my lie did. If Bob cooperates, you’re done; if not, there’s one more step.
Step 8: Call for Help
At this point, since you are not a hostage negotiator, but an average person faced with a confrontational individual, the time for talk is over. You have asked for cooperation four times and have gotten nowhere. It’s time to get someone else to intervene. Call management or call security. Not only have you asked for cooperation four times, you asked four different ways. (This presumes you were never so threatened that you felt the need to hit a panic button or otherwise call for help earlier. Company policy regarding notification should be factored into any response.)
The objective of these steps is not to impose your will to change the person’s mind but to create an atmosphere where the person changes his or her own mind. When you can do that, you exercise incredible control over any situation.
Your effectiveness managing a situation teetering toward aggression or violence depends on how mentally prepared you are. By developing confidence that you are prepared, you can remain calm. By remaining calm, you drastically increase your chances of keeping the situation from escalating. Having a strategy such as the one outlined here will help you achieve that level of confidence and preparedness.
Kevin McCaffery has worked 27 years as a Staff Sergeant with the Ottawa Police Service (Canada), including 13 years as a hostage negotiator and three years as a police trainer. He can be contacted at McCafferyK@ottawapolice.ca .