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Conflict De-Escalation Techniques

Anticipating potential conflict is important, and there are many verbal & non-verbal cues to be mindful of as situations unfold.

Certain occupations are more at-risk of exposure to violence; it’s a fact.

For example, employees working alone, working late at night, or working in high-crime areas, are all more likely to be subjected to an act of violence; that’s according to OSHA.

Seems like common sense, right?

And if you have workers who routinely deal with angry customers, you know how things can get out of control, and that workers need a strategy for resolving those situations.

That’s where conflict de-escalation techniques come in handy.

Anticipating potential conflict is important for preparedness, and there are many verbal and non-verbal cues to be mindful of as situations unfold.

For recognition, here are some signs of conflict escalation:

  • A person clenching his or her fists or tightening and untightening their jaw.
  • A sudden change in body language or tone used during a conversation.
  • The person starts pacing or fidgeting.
  • A change in type of eye contact.
  • The “Rooster Stance” – chest protruding out more and arms more away from the body.
  • Disruptive behaviors – Such as yelling, bullying, actively defying or refusing to comply with rules.

So what can you do in order to help de-escalate a conflict situation? Here are some tips, and remember, this isn’t a step by step list, but rather a menu of options that may prove useful…

And remember, without specialized training; never consider the use of physical force as your first response.

  • First, calm yourself before interacting with the person.
    • If you’re upset, it’s only going to escalate the situation. Calm down and then begin to look at the situation and how you can intervene safely.
    • Take a deep breath.
    • Use a low, dull tone of voice and don’t get defensive even if the insults are directed at you.
  • Becoming aware of your situation is also critically important. This can include:
    • Other people in the room,
    • Objects; such as chairs, tables, items on a table,
    • and the space around you, like exits or openings, and if you are blocking the person so that they are made to feel trapped.
  • Try to look as non-threatening as possible.
    • Appear calm and self-assured even if you don’t feel it.
    • Maintain limited eye contact and be at the same eye level. Encourage the customer to be seated, but if he/she needs to stand, stand up also.
    • Maintain a neutral facial expression.
    • Place your hands in front of your body in an open and relaxed position. 
    • Don’t shrug your shoulders.
    • Don’t point your fingers at the person.
    • Avoid excessive gesturing, pacing, fidgeting, or weight shifting.
    • Maintain a public space distance, which is 12 feet or more.
  • Make a personal connection. Something as simple as asking, “What’s your name?” can diffuse a situation quickly.
    • People respond positively to their own name and can make the dialogue more personal.
  • Listening to the persons concerns. - Acknowledge the other person’s feelings without passing judgment on them.
    • Empathy needs to be shown during conflict situations. Even if you do not agree with the person’s position, expressing an understanding why that person feels a particular way will help resolve the conflict.
    • Clarifying, paraphrasing and open-ended questions all help to ensure that the person is aware you have understood their frustrations completely.
    • Ask to take notes.
    • Ask for their ideas or solutions.
    • Help them talk out angry feelings rather than act on them.
  • Shift the conversation to the future, create hope, and you make yourself less threatening.
    • Using “what” and “we” helps include the person in those future plans.
  • Get them to say yes.
    • It is very hard for someone to stay angry towards you if they are agreeing with you.

No person, group, or set of conditions can guarantee that a conflict will proceed constructively.

If de-escalation is not working, stop!

If the situation feels unsafe, leave and call for help.

Remember to be patient, calm and aware of the situational surroundings should a conflict arise in your workplace.

Most importantly, have a plan to protect yourself if the worst case scenario unfolds; how do you escape, defend your life, or protect other colleagues.