De-Escalation Techniques: When Communication Is Key to Mitigating Workplace Violence

de-escalation

It’s just a normal day at the office.

Employees are huddled in groups collaborating on projects. The conference room is abuzz with excitement over the possibility of a new client. The receptionist brought in homemade cookies for everyone. 

Then suddenly, one of the voices spikes above the dull roar of the rest of the conversations. Another voice shouts back. One worker shoves the other.

There’s no hope of de-escalation. Before anyone can do anything, it’s devolved into a fistfight.

Someone calls the police while the other employees try to pull them off of one another. They both leave in handcuffs.

As much as we’d like to ignore the possibility of such a thing happening in our workplace, the reality is a little more frightening. In just 2017, workplace violence caused over 18,000 injuries and over 450 deaths

And that doesn’t include the instances that didn’t end with an injury.

You can’t afford to ignore the possibility of workplace violence. But luckily, there are ways that you can try to de-escalate tense situations before things get violent.

Keep reading for some tried and true de-escalation tactics.

Know The Warning Signs

Very rarely will someone immediately jump to physical violence from a calm state. Rather, violence usually happens when their emotional turmoil reaches a breaking point.

And while we can never know exactly how a person is feeling, there are usually warning signs along the way.

First, a person will be anxious. They might start pacing or fidgeting. Their breathing may deepen or become quicker.

Anxiety is not necessarily atypical for a workplace—especially if your work environment is fast-paced and high-pressure. However, if you notice that an employee is growing anxious, back off to avoid agitating them any further.

If you fail to de-escalate while an employee is anxious, they may become argumentative and defensive.

At this stage, they may become verbally combative, disrespectful, and belligerent. They may cross their arms and “check out” of the conversation. Often, they will challenge authority and disregard the possibility of consequences.

The best course of action at this point is to speak to them calmly with short, direct sentences. Avoid making threats.

If the situation escalates, they will usually become physically threatening before acting on their anger. They might give verbal threats, or they may just adopt an aggressive posture.

Keep an eye out for clenched fists, a tight jaw, and the “Rooster stance”—protruding their chest and pulling their arms away from their body.

If they become physically threatening, avoid being alone. Find someone to assist you. Remove other individuals out of harm’s way. 

At any of these stages, there is still the possibility of de-escalation before it erupts in violence. 

Watch Your Body Language

In the 1970s, a sociologist named Albert Mehrabian performed a study that suggested that body language informs 55% of communication.

That’s more important than anything you say or even the tone of voice you use.

But what’s difficult here is that we often subconscious reflect a person’s body language. Psychologists call this “mirroring.” And while this can have a positive effect in peaceful situations, it can wreak havoc when things are tense.

When someone acts threatening toward us, our natural instinct is to meet their level of aggression. Often, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Obviously, this can cause an already-tense situation to snowball out of control.

Be hyper aware of your own body language. Avoid trying to appear dominant, but don’t cower either. Keep yourself from crossing your arms or “squaring up” with your feet.

Keep your arms by your sides, slightly opening your palms forward. Keep your feet in line with one another.

Keep your distance from the agitated individual. A simple step forward might be misinterpreted as a threat, leading to a physical outburst.

Stay Aware

When you’re trying to de-escalate a potentially violent scenario, you have to remember that there is a very real possibility that you may fail to cool things down.

If things come to blows, it’s important to have an exit plan. 

Keep a watchful eye on your surroundings. Try to keep yourself between the individual and the exit. Watch for any potential weapons that they could use, such as tools, or unsecured furniture. 

Ask Non-Judgmental Questions

One of the most important ways to avoid a violent outburst is to talk the person down.

However, what you say is incredibly important.

Avoid making accusations or telling them they’re acting irrationally. Ask questions from a position of non-judgment. Allow them the chance to voice their concerns without criticizing or demeaning them.

When we get angry, our own judgment is impaired. Anger specifically makes us overestimate our own intelligence and decision making. When an angry person is told that they are wrong, they double down, becoming even more hostile.

However, if you let them talk through their own viewpoint, they might realize how foolish they’re being on their own.

Listen

People want to be heard. Often, people become hostile because they are being ignored, humiliated, or misunderstood. 

The most important thing you can do when de-escalating a situation is to let their voice be heard. Honestly listen to them and give them space to give their perspective.

When they answer, rephrase their statements back to them to let them know that you understand them. 

As they start to calm down, ask them if they have any ideas to resolve the situation. 

Don’t be afraid to let uncomfortable silences sit between a question and the answer. 

De-Escalation Tactics To Keep the Peace

We all want to feel like our workplaces are safe. But unfortunately, we encounter situations that threaten that safety.

If you would like to learn more about what you can do to avoid violent scenarios, request a demo of our workplace violence training. We’ll teach you useful de-escalation tactics, how to institute a practical safety policy, and more.  

For more information, contact us.