Using Verbal De-escalation
From the Bible
The Bible has a lot to say about dealing with anger, whether our own or that of someone else.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9).
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Proverbs 15:1).
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body (Proverbs 16:24).
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding (Proverbs 17:27).
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame (Proverbs 18:13).
Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips (Proverbs 24:26).
A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention (Proverbs 15:18).
For pressing milk produces curds, pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife (Proverbs 30:33).
An ice cube can cool a fresh burn, or soup that's too hot to eat. Cold running water cools boiled eggs. A fan can cool you on a hot day. But how can we cool hot tempers?
In the News
Rarely does a successful use of verbal de-escalation at church make the news. Its failure is more likely to be considered newsworthy. However, disruption and threats of it do make the news. Think of how you would respond in each of these situations:
Warning about a Non-Violent Disrupter
East Tennessee, October 23, 2019 - A sheriff's office in East Tennessee posted an alert to churches about a person coming to worship services and Bible studies. Sometime during the sermon or the lesson he asks questions, then begins to debate or argue. While doing this he records the encounter with his smartphone. Later, he posts video footage online. The sheriff shared a photo of the person so church leaders would know who to watch for.
Radical Disrupters Target Churches
Lansing, Michigan, Olympia, Washington, other cities, November 2008 - A radical gay group infiltrated a church near Lansing, MI while other members of the group gathered outside. At some point during the service, they stood up, displayed signs, and shouted slogans. On the street outside, the others made noise and shouted through bullhorns. They did leave when asked, so sheriff's deputies did not make any arrests or issue citations.
It was a different story in Olympia, WA, where demonstrators affiliated with those in Michigan engaged in vandalism. In 2008, this group had chapters in several cities, raising concerns about possible future disruptions.
Pro-Abortion Protesters Invade Church Service
Columbus, Ohio, January 22, 2021 - During a pro-life mass on the anniversary of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, protesters marched into a Catholic cathedral carrying signs and shouting slogans. Some of the protesters were still in the church when police arrived. Four of them were charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.
Serial Disrupter a Mental Health Case
Fort Wayne, Indiana, December 2010 - A young man with a mental-health issue attended Sunday services several large churches in the Fort Wayne area, sometimes two on the same morning. In each one, he stood up during the sermon and loudly proclaimed that there would be a nuclear attack on New York City within a couple of months. He was not violent and usually left after someone spoke to him.
Gun Violence Threatened During Sunday Morning Service
Raleigh County, West Virginia, April 7, 2019 - A man went into a church on Sunday morning, created a disruption, and threatened the pastor and the congregation. He claimed to have firearms. Some men in the church brought him under control and took him outside to wait for responding deputies. When the officers arrived and took him into custody, they found firearms in his vehicle. More were found at his home.
The special download for April is Behavioral Emergencies: Dealing with people in crisis. It is based on several professional sources and has four sections: Causes of a behavioral emergency, Symptoms of a potential behavioral emergency, The potential for violence, and Verbal de-escalation. Click *HERE* to get it. You will be signed up for the monthly newsletter, The Church Guardian, and the weekly update email - that is, if you're not already subscribed. You can find out more about verbal de-escalation in the Church Security Guide article, "Disruptive Individuals: How to De-escalate the Situation", and even more in the training course Deescalating Disruptive Persons v4.
Reflex Protect with Presidia Gel is the featured product for this month. Sometimes verbal de-escalation isn't enough, and the subject becomes physically violent. How can you gain control without seriously injuring the person or endangering others in the area? The unique spray head on Reflex Protect shoots a tight stream of the gel, which sticks to the target. Once calm is restored, Reflex Remove, a decontaminant, can quickly remove the gel (it also works on pepper oil).
Responding to Deteriorating Situations
If churches in your area are warned about a disrupter, such as the one in East Tennessee, how would you plan to respond if he showed up at your church? How would you respond if one or more protesters stood up in the middle of a service, as happened in Lansing, or marched in as was done in Columbus? The news story from West Virginia did not say what kind of disturbance the man created in the church before making the threats, therefore we do not know whether anyone tried to use verbal de-escalation.
More likely scenarios, though, are a conversation becoming an argument, an estranged spouse coming in to confront the other spouse or to take their child, and an already agitated attendee becoming more agitated. Then there are mental health meltdowns. Sometimes you may recognize that someone is suicidal.
Police often encounter these kinds of scenarios in their calls, so most news stories about these situations involve the police. Therefore, a lot of discussion of these situations and how they have been and should be handled are on websites about law enforcement. One topic is subjects with various disabilities or with linguistic and cultural barriers. Of special concern are those with mental illness, cognitive impairment, and autism, conditions we may encounter in church.
A tool to slow down, stop, and reverse disruption
The second level on the Use-of-Force Continuum is Verbal Commands. Verbal de-escalation fits in here, but at a different angle. Call this a positive force, which soothes frayed nerves and calms frayed tempers. It is the "gentle answer" that "turns away wrath" (Prov. 15:1) and the manner of the peacemaker (Matt. 5:9).
There are a few people who seem to naturally have the knack of cooling heated tempers and bringing peace to difficult situations. They probably learned this growing up, practicing it from an early age. However, most of us need some instruction and a lot of practice to master this skill. Verbal de-escalation is being taught to law enforcement and corrections officers, educators, healthcare workers, and business managers and employees. It is also taught to religious personnel, including safety & security ministry teams. In addition to courses, there is also advice and instruction online through denominations, church insurance companies, and parachurch and in-church ministries (such as Sheepdog Church Security).
The Sheepdog Church SecurityTraining Course "Deescalating Disruptive Persons v4" was designed to train members of a Church Safety Ministry in dealing with disruptive persons. It can also be used to teach verbal de-escalation skills to others in the church, such as greeters, church leaders (including pastors), ushers, and teachers. This broader base of responders may provide more immediate action when needed. If the responder has a radio - or an emergency-alert button keyed to the Safety Team radios - a Security Team member can come as backup. When you are holding a class on verbal de-escalation, ask these other people to attend. At the least, they will understand what is going on when they see a Safety Team member deescalating a situation.
The Skill of Verbal De-escalation
We cannot give a complete course on verbal de-escalation in this article, but we can present a short description and outline.
It may seem odd to some that a "verbal" skill begins with "non-verbal" components, but these are just as important in communication as words. In emotionally-charged encounters, the non-verbal component is more important. These components are body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.
Posture matters. Be conscious of your body posture Think of what your impression is when the person speaking to you has their arms folded or their hands on their hips. Or when they are relaxed and alert?
The SDCS Training Course has these posture pointers:
- Use an open yet defensible posture. Police refer to this as an interview stance.
- Use slow and deliberate movements.
- Never point your finger at anyone because it communicates accusation.
- Never shrug your shoulders because it shows that you are uncaring or unknowing.
- Don't display a rigid posture by crossing your arms or puffing out your chest because shows that you are defensive or aggressive.
Likewise, your face says more than your words do. Not only that, your facial expression actually changes how your words sound, so even when the other person can't see your face, he or she can sense your expression - that's what they teach employees whose job is calling people or answering the phone.
- Relax facial muscles: don't frown or raise your eyebrows.
- Smile: be friendly with a natural smile. (If the situation is becoming too stressful for you, it is okay to relax your smile to avoid a fake smile. A fake smile is very aggravating to an already agitated person.)
- Eye Contact:
- Keep natural eye contact with your eyes open to show interest.
- Avoid staring at the person.
- Don't close your eyes or look away.
Tone of Voice
Mary answered John, "It's not what you said, but how you said it." Actors practice over and over again speaking their lines just the way their characters would sound in the scene. Getting the right voice tone conveys the intended emotional state of the script. Public speakers also practice getting the right voice to convey the right message.
In verbal de-escalation, we're not acting and not usually addressing a crowd, but we do want our voice to calm distressed persons and defuse anger. Controlling our voices is a key to controlling the situation.
Again, from the Training Course:
- Keep the volume of your voice soft.
- Keep your rate of speech natural or even slow.
- Keep a friendly, helpful tone.
- Control your emotions.
- Maintain the mind of Christ:
- Don't prejudge.
- Don't criticize or argue.
- Don't threaten.
- Don't enter into a power struggle.
- Be understanding (understand what they are saying and feeling). Don't mistake it for agreeing with them.
Techniques of Verbal De-Escalation
When we are intending to use verbal de-escalation, we need to keep our goals in mind:
- Keep lines of communication open.
- Get the person talking.
- Actively listen.
- Maintain control through clear and calm communication.
If the situation is potentially very disruptive or violent, call for backup. Use "Code Orange" with your location. If you expect violence, add 911 to the code.
Keep lines of communication open
This depends on trust. First, don't sneak up on the person(s). We don't want them to feel they're being ambushed. Stand at ready-ease in the interview stance: a little to one side with your feet at a moderate angle to those of the subject, your preferred hand on the side away from the person, your hands in front, about waist high, slightly cupped (not clasped).
Stand close enough to communicate without invading the subject's personal space. The more nervous or agitated a person is, the more their personal space increases, up to six feet (sounds like social distancing).
Get the person talking
Introduce yourself. Ask for the other person's name, and use it often. Let them know you want to help. If they ask why you are helping, be ready give them a reason. Remember that when people are more emotional, as a rule they're less logical.
Listen in a way that lets them know you're listening: active listening. Echo what they say. Use phrases like, "I see." Confirm your understanding of what they've said with words such as, "Man, that sounds tough."
Maintain control through clear and calm communication.
First, exercise self-control over your emotions, your words, your posture, your movements, etc. Also control your thoughts.
- Be clear in what you say - no mixed messages.
- Control your reactions to what they say.
- Be patient with the person's hesitations and repetitions - it's their emotions at work. It's also a sign that they're beginning to calm down.
- Avoid arguing. Say "and" instead of "but."
The Avoidance List
There are a number of things to avoid while deescalating a situation:
- Avoid premature intervention - First let people try to work things out themselves.
- Avoid "I know how you feel" - Each person's feelings are different.
- Avoid "Why" questions - Overwrought people find it hard to answer the whys.
- Avoid rushing - Time is on your side.
- Avoid too many or hardball questions - Too much emotion or reason.
- Avoid being accusatory - It will provoke negative reactions
- Avoid shouting - It heats up emotions.
- Avoid rapid commands - They can't handle that right now.
- Avoid taking things personally - It's not really you that's bothering them (at least we hope not).
- Avoid promises you can't keep - Leave that to the politicians.
What about Protestors?
When protestors make a scene, it's because they want the public attention of a scene. They will provoke you into saying or doing things which will put you into a negative light. Don't bite. Don't try to de-escalate protestors, especially on the street. It probably won't look good on TV or in the papers, besides being not likely to work.
Keep your cool. Do not respond in kind. Use "I" statements, not "you" statements. If it gets to be too much for you, have someone else take over.
Find out what issue is being protested. Refer all questions to a person or persons authorized to speak for the church. If you are that person, have a prepared statement ready in case reporters ask you questions on the issue. If that will take a while, have a response indicating you may have an answer later.
Life's little disruptions come and go. We don't want a little one to grow into a big and dangerous one. Watch and be alert for when things are going too far. Know when to intervene and use verbal de-escalation to cool down the situation.
There Is More
April's focus, Back from the Brink, is on Verbal De-escalation. The first article of the month is "Finding a Non-Violent Defense" (The Background of Reflex Protect). It features a relatively new defensive spray to use just in case de-escalation doesn't work and you need to stop physical violence. Two articles are on verbal de-escalation, this one and "Seeds of Disruption" (What Causes Disruptive Behavior?). Rounding out the month is The 2003 Turner Monumental AME Shooting, an article in the series Lessons Learned from Church Shooting Incidents.
- Kris Moloney, "Deescalating Disruptive Persons v4," Sheepdog Church Security, Training Courses, © Copyright 2019: Training Materials (Classroom) [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/dealing-with-disruptive-persons-using-verbal-deescalation-training-bundle]; Individual Training (Online) [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/dealing-with-disruptive-persons-using-verbal-deescalation].
- WZTV Staff, "Police in East Tennessee warn churches of man who engages in debate, disrupts services," WZTV Fox17, October 23, 2019 [https://fox17.com/news/local/police-in-east-tennessee-warn-churches-of-man-who-engages-in-debate-disrupts-services-10-23-2019].
- CNA Staff, "Gay activists disrupt Sunday service at Michigan church," CNA (Catholic News Agency), November 13, 2008 [https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/gay_activists_disrupt_sunday_service_at_michigan_church].
- Matt Bach, "Bash Back! - Radical gay group - worries some churches; What do you think?" Michigan Live, November 21, 2008, updated April 4, 2019 [https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2008/11/bash_back_radical_gay_group_wo.html].
- 10TV Web Staff, "Four charged in disruption of pro-life mass at downtown Columbus church," 10 WBNS, January 22, 2021, updated March 10, 2021 [https://www.10tv.com/article/news/local/four-charged-pro-life-mass-at-downtown-columbus-church-disrupted-by-protesters/530-8d27e0ea-592b-428d-8a4f-d55570892ca7].
- Heather Herron and Adam Widener, "Sermon screamer disrupts church services," WANE 15 News, December 7, 2010 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxq1EURcpZk].
- WSAZ News Staff, "A man was arrested after allegedly threatening church parishioners with gun violence, the Raleigh County Sheriff's Office says," WSAZ News3, April 9, 2019 [https://www.wsaz.com/content/news/Man-accused-of-threatening-church-with-gun-violence-508333771.html].
- Kris P. Moloney, "Behavioral Emergencies: Dealing with people in crisis," Sheepdog Church Security, © Copyright 2019 [https://sheepdog-church-security.ck.page/c225ce3542].
- Kris Moloney, "Disruptive Individuals: How to De-escalate the Situation," Sheepdog Church Security, Security Guide [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/verbal-de-escalation].
- "Reflex Protect with Presidia Gel" and "Reflex Remove," ReflexProtect, Shop [https://reflexprotect.com/collections/products].
- Kris Moloney, "Self Defense Laws, Your Rights and Use of Force," Church Security Guide, Sheepdog Church Security [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/use-of-force-arrest-laws/].