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  • Writer's pictureBrian Patterson

Developing the Art of De-Escalation

Developing the Art of De-Escalation

Brian Patterson

Because of my experience in alternative schools, that is the context of this article. The same principles apply in any place where two humans are. No matter how brief or inconsequential, it is a relationship.

Often when dealing with angry students, people will feel exhausted and helpless at the end of the outburst. There are Reality Therapy methods for dealing with angry individuals. The best way to deal with this issue is to preempt an outburst by identifying early warning signs. Getting to know students and their tendencies is important. Body language, compared to what they normally project, is crucial. The anger can be totally avoided with a re-directive conversation when the first flicker of disgust or frustration appears.

There are times when we are confronted with angry students, co-workers, parents, supervisors and stakeholders. In the majority of the situations, it is to your benefit to help the other person reduce their anger. All of our interactions are intertwined in the relationship. If we want to help the person, we must consider the relationship as an involved entity that cannot speak for itself.

Attempting to reason with those who use anger to intimidate, control, get attention, avoid responsibility, or pump themselves up will generally further add to the aggression or at the very least, be ineffective. Ignoring the anger can make it worse. Your first order of business is to de-escalate the level of anger. If they are already into the Acting phase of Total Behavior, staff must patiently work with the situation until the angry person has calmed down enough to reactivate the frontal lobe (reasoning portion) of the brain.

  1. Before intervening, do a quick assessment to see if you are in the proper frame of mind for an intervention.

  2. Remember that these situations are not personal. The angry individual is acting to satisfy their own Quality World picture. If you can handle this dispassionately, great results will ensue.

  3. This generally means that you can view this person as someone who is doing the best he or she can to get his or her needs met at that point in time. Dr. Glasser said, “Everyone is doing the best thing they know at the time.”

  4. Are you in the proper frame of mind that you will not be reduced to his or her level of anger should you intervene?

  5. Can you allow that even if you do everything correctly, people may still maintain their anger because it is what works best for them without feeling as if you failed? If the answer to these questions is yes, then proceed.

  6. Anger is a chosen Behavior. The best result would be for the angry person to find another, more effective and responsible behavior for use the next time the frustration is so great. Choosing something other than anger is an important part of their Social-Emotional Learning.

  7. If the person is angry, remove the audience. Let your communication become lower and slower. Listen to them.

By understanding Choice Theory and using Reality Therapy you can develop the skills to manage your anger and the anger of others. It may be difficult to imagine that anger is something you can control. You can control your own anger and you can learn to help others deescalate.

You may be wondering why you should learn how to help others manage their anger. No one has a right ‘to talk to you that way’ and you should have the right to hang up the phone or walk away. You do have that right but the question is what does that choice do to the angry person? Often they become even more outraged. Learning these methods will give you the ammunition you need to take the proverbial wind out of the angry person’s sails.

Consider the following questions:

  1. Can you accept the angry person for who he or she is—a person who is simply attempting to meet his or her needs in the best way he or she knows at that point in time?

  2. Can you avoid criticizing and finding fault with the angry person? Think about what it is you like about them during the storm.

  3. Can you avoid being judgmental? This is about their Quality World- not yours.

  4. Can you keep from trying to control the other person into doing something he or she doesn’t want to do?

  5. Can you keep yourself removed from the conflict?

  6. Can you believe that the angry person has the right to make decisions and choices about how he or she meets his or her needs and that the person does have within him or her ability to make those decisions?

  7. Can you try to see the situation from the angry person’s point of view and understand what need or needs he or she is trying to satisfy? (Love & Belonging, Power, Freedom, Fun or Survival.)

  8. If acting in a professional capacity, can you remember that your job is to place the healing of the relationships as a primary concern?

If you are able to answer yes to these questions, then you are in a good place to intervene with the angry person. If you are not sure about your answers or you know that your answer to at least one of the questions is negative, then your involvement may actually escalate instead of deescalate the situation.

No one likes having to be the one to take someone’s angry outbursts, especially if they aren’t the one who caused the problem and they’re not responsible for its solution. It certainly isn’t right and definitely isn’t fair to have to clean up other people’s messes. However, when a staff member is confronted with the angry person, it is critical to have a plan of how the situation can be handled appropriately.

Here are Five Deescalation Techniques:

  1. Active Listening. Do not interrupt regardless of language or volume at first. Try to get the person to a private spot where you can listen to the whole story. Don’t say, “Calm down!” or “Don’t use that kind of language.” These issues can and should be dealt with later but there is no reasoning capacity in the person when they are already angry. Re-state the important points that the angry person is making without qualification or judgment.

  2. Acknowledgment. This would include statements like, “I can see that this is very upsetting.” Or “Your expectations were much higher than that.”

  3. Apologizing. “I’m sorry that this happened.” Or, if the anger is directed at something more personal, “I apologize that I said it that way.” No excuses or reasoning other than that at this point. The situation that preceded the angry outburst can be reconstructed at a later time.

  4. Agreeing. Find points in what is being said with which you can agree, no matter how small. “It makes sense to me that this situation offended you.” Or “Situations like this often lead to misunderstandings.”

  5. Inviting Criticism. In later conversations, ask the person how you could have handled things better or what you could have noticed sooner. If you aren’t taking these things personally, there can be a grain of truth in what they have to say. At the very least, you have validated their personhood by listening to them.

Applying these skills will result in improved relationships in your personal life and in the workplace. Also, for all involved there will be improved mental health and a reduction of unnecessary stress. If a student is involved, they will experience an improved sense of self-worth (Glasser Power need). Students and staff will develop better communication skills and a greater sense of love and belonging. Staff will have a sense of calm when managing crisis behaviors. Improved self-control will be obvious in students and staff. Practicing these skills will increase ability to manage the aggressive behaviors of others. As a result, our centers will develop better customer and client relations. Stress begins to diminish our ability to find creative solutions.

  1. People can think a lot clearer when they are not engaged in angry behavior.

  2. Others generally respond a lot better when a person is calm than when he or she is angry.

  3. When people learn effective diffusing skills, they no longer fear verbally aggressive behavior.

Try to watch your own behavior from the outside or ask a colleague to do so. Positioning, proximity, placement of furniture, tone of voice- your para-language- is crucial if you want to help resolve the situation and model responsible behavior for them. Remember, that you are satisfying your own Basic Needs, too.

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