Disruptive Individuals: How to De-escalate the Situation
Verbal de-escalation is an important subject for church safety. It can move a person from the edge of committing a violent act to the position of making a controlled decision. The Bible tells us, "the tongue holds the power of life and death" (Proverbs 18:21). When used properly, words can de-escalate even the worst situation.
What Is Verbal De-escalation?
Verbal de-escalation uses words to prevent a disruptive person from becoming violent. It is Sheepdog Church Ministry's most-used response when dealing with disruptive people. There are no magic words to calm people down. Verbal de-escalation is a set of guidelines used by people of emotional intelligence.
The philosophy of verbal de-escalation seems illogical. But, if you take a less authoritative, controlling, confrontational approach you will have more control. Give a person a sense of control so he doesn't feel his only choice is to resort to violence.
Goals of De-escalation
The four main goals of de-escalation give it its power.
- Keep lines of communication open. You'll gain insight into the situation including things that may calm the person.
- Get the person talking. Much of a disruptive person's frustration comes from feeling ignored or misunderstood. Also, when talking there is little chance for action.
- Actively listen. Make the person feel heard.
- Maintain control through clear and calm communication. You will be able to better control the situation by keeping the level of conversation quiet and calm.
Why Do People Become Disruptive?
People often become disruptive due to personal crises. If a person perceives a situation has exceeded her ability to cope, the emotional anguish becomes intolerable. Familiarize yourself and your team with causes of personal crises.
Family Problems: failing marriage, children acting out, arguments with in-laws
Financial Problems: foreclosure, job loss, difficulty affording basic needs or paying bills.
Substance Abuse: alcoholism and other forms of addiction put tremendous strain on people.
Medical Conditions: chronic pain, frightening diagnoses, terminal illness, mental illness
Always remember: a personal crisis does not mean a weakness in faith or character. Everybody experiences hard times. Remain compassionate and humble.
Physical Warning Signs
The CCOHS also lists physical warning signs
- flushed or pale face
- pacing, restlessness, repetitive movements
- extreme fatigue
- change in voice
- loud talking or changing
- shallow, rapid breathing
- scoling, sneering, using abusive language
- clenched jaws or fists
- exaggerated or violent gestures
- glaring or avoiding eye contact
- violating personal space
Many organizations develop threat assessment teams. These teams meet on a regular basis to discuss people who may be experiencing a personal crisis. They identify those for whom a crisis may be imminent so help may be offered.
Too many times, the realization of what was going on in a person's life becomes clear after the violent event. These meetings allow the team time to identify potential issues.
Consider threat assessment as part of your church safety strategy. Share information and educate team members about warning signs. Reiterate how to de-escalate the situation using verbal techniques.
These meetings must never turn into gossip sessions. Include discussions of:
- Documented history of violence
- History of violence
- Threatening and intimidating behavior
- Increased personal stress
- Negative personality traits
- Changes in mood or behavior
Have the lists of behavioral and physical warning signs at every meeting.
History of Violence
Determining a history of physical violence is easy if there is a known record. Talking to people known to the church member who may be exhibiting warning signs helps. The CCOHS provides these questions to assist:
- Does the person have a fascination with incidents of violence?
- Does the person show an extreme interest in weapons?
- Has the person committed violence or destroyed property?
Questions to Assess Intimidating Behavior
Questions to ask regarding a history of intimidating behavior:
- Is the person argumentative or uncooperative?
- Has the person been impulsive recently?
- Does the person display unwarranted anger?
- Is the person's anger mismatched to the offense?
- Does the person seem easily frustrated?
- Do they challenge peers and authority figures?
Questions to Assess an Increase in Personal Stress
- Does he have an unreciprocated romantic obsession?
- Does she have serious family or financial problems?
- Have they experienced recent job or personal loss?
- Are they struggling with substance or alcohol abuse?
Questions to Assess Negative Personality Traits
- Is the person suspicious of others?
- Does she have a sense of entitlement?
- Does he reject criticism or helpful advice?
- Do they feel victimized?
- Has she shown a lack of concern for the safety or well-being of others?
- Does he blame others for his problems and mistakes
- Does he have low self esteem?
Questions to Assess Changes in Mood and Behavior
- Has she developed extreme or bizarre behaviors?
- Does she have irrational beliefs or ideas?
- Does he appear depressed?
- Has he expressed feeling hopeless?
- Is his anxiety heightened?
- Has their work performance declined?
- Has she drastically changed her belief system?
- Does his history include negative interpersonal relationships?
- Do they have very few friends?
- Does she view the church as a dysfunctional family?
- Have they become obsessively involved in church politics and drama?
Learn more about this topic and several others with our Certified Safety Member Course. It is available as an online video-based training that can be taken anytime and from anywhere using your own computer. Each section ends with a short test to demonstrate an understanding of the material. Once you've completed all 7 sections, you will be certified for 2-years with Sheepdog Church Security.
Skills to De-escalate the Situation
Communication depends more on non-verbal cues than spoken words. Your body language, facial expression and tone, and volume of voice say more than your words. When our nonverbal and verbal communication disagree, people react to our body language.
Tips for Maintaining Body Language as You De-Escalate the Situation
- Mindful: be conscious of your posture
- Open: use an open, yet defensible posture (interview stance)
- Move Slowly: use slow and deliberate movements.
- Don't Point: never point at the person. It communicates accusations.
- Don't Shrug: shrugging your shoulders communicates that you are uncaring or unknowing.
- Relax: don't display a rigid posture, cross your arms, or puff out your chest. This shows you as defensive or aggressive.
Be aware of your facial expression:
- Relax Your Face: don't furrow your brow or frown.
- Smile: start friendly with a natural smile. If the situation escalates it's okay to relax into a neutral expression. Nothing is more aggravating than a fake smile.
- Eye Contact: keep and maintain natural eye contact. Never close your eyes or look away. Don't stare. The person may interpret this as a challenge.
Be aware of your voice:
- Volume: keep your volume soft. Generally, the softer voice is matched. It's also calming.
- Slow Down: your rate of speech should be natural or slower than natural. This is soothing.
- Friendly: keep your tone of voice friendly and helpful.
Keep your thoughts and emotions in check. They come across through body language:
- Maintain the Mind of Christ: do not prejudge, criticize, argue, threaten, engage in power struggles, or disregard the feelings or position of the person.
- Understand Without Agreeing: we recommend using the phrase "I hear you." It shows that you understand what the person is saying and the emotions they are feeling. It does not say you agree with their actions or interpretations.
Using Words to De-escalate the Situation
Imagine a new couple visits your church. Congregants are aware that they are recently separated and working through custody agreements. Before services, they argue loudly in the lobby. The man is shouting, the woman is crying and the kids are not there. Here's how to de-escalate the situation verbally.
Before approaching a disruptive situation, call for backup. Use your radio, out of the couple's earshot, and say "Code Orange in the lobby. Code Orange in the lobby."
Evaluate the situation and review the goals of verbal de-escalation mentioned earlier.
Keep the lines of communication open by establishing trust. Do not sneak upon him. He is already aggravated, so approach within his field of vision.
Maintain your freedom of movement in case things get violent. Use an interview stance: feet shoulder-width apart with one foot slightly back. Keep your hands in front of you. This is not a fighting stance. Look natural but ready. Folding or cupping your hands at waist level is quite natural. It is also natural to use your hands while talking.
Do not enter the person's personal space. In America, personal space is usually about three feet. When a person is aggravated or angry, that increases to five to six feet. In addition, six feet just happens to be the reactionary gap police used for an unarmed combatant (Grossi, 2013). Six feet provides enough time to evade or deflect a physical attack.
Don't touch him. What you think is a friendly touch might be interpreted as a physical assault. If the person gets too close to you, back up to create space. It is also completely acceptable to put your hand up in a blocking manner, but do not touch him if you can avoid it. If he continues to invade your space, Prepare to use increasing levels of force.
Get him talking by introducing yourself. Approach the couple and introduce yourself. Tell them you see they seem upset and have heard they are having problems. Tell them that you are there to help. An example may be, "Hi, I'm Kris. I see that you're both very upset. Is there any way I can help?" The key to remember is that introducing yourself this way both promotes communication and gives a reason why you're there.
Ask for their names and use them often. Be prepared for them to refuse help or even become confrontational. If possible, move them to a semi-private or safe location. However, do not corner him in an office. Do not engage him alone. In the engagement phase, you're trying to get the person talking. Keep in mind that emotional people do not think logically, process information slowly, and have trouble remembering details.
Continue engaging in using active listening. Use a low, soft, calm voice and repeat things when necessary. Active listening requires you to echo the person's statements with slightly different wording. For example, if he says, "I got fired!", respond, "You lost your job."
Time is on your side. Prevent the situation from becoming violent. If verbal de-escalation is working, keep using it. Let him vent. Take as much time as you need. Maintain control through clear and calm communication.
When he tells you his/her story, at first, it'll be brief and it'll only be the most upsetting portion. Each time he repeats the story, he will give more supporting details while repeating the most upsetting element. If your verbal de-escalation techniques are working, the person will continue to tell his story over and over again, adding more details each time.
When this happens, you will know that your techniques to de-escalate the situation are working. He is calming down. This process can take some time. He may tell you the story half a dozen times before beginning to calm down.
When talking to the husband, use the word "and" instead of the word "but." "But" is argumentative, whereas "and" adds information. Use "please" and "thank you." If he cannot or will not communicate, talk to witnesses to find out what's wrong. There may be a family member or friend nearby who knows what's going on.
Ask him if he needs anything. Offer food and drink. They have a way of calming people down. Announce your movements, especially if you're moving towards him. Remain friendly but firm.
Accept his feelings, thoughts, and behavior by respecting his dignity. Approach any situation the same.
Additional Tips Helping to De-escalate the Situation
- Avoid intervening too quickly. People argue and it is a healthy part of relationships.
- Avoid interrupting a disruptive person. The whole point is to get and keep her talking to calm down.
- Don't ask "why" questions. Why questions are logic-based. Emotional people do not think logically.
- Don't rush the interaction. Time is on your side. Don't try to hurry verbal de-escalation techniques.
- Avoid asking a lot of questions. If you do ask a question, it should be a "softball" type of question.
- Avoid accusatory statements such as "act right - this is a church", "you're acting crazy", or "you need to calm down." These statements are very inflammatory.
- Avoid saying "I know how you feel", or "things can't be that bad." This isn't about you, and you can't know how they feel. Do not suggest that things will get better because they may not.
- Avoid shouting or giving rapid commands.
- Don't take anything personally (lying, tricking, deceiving, threatening, etc.).
- Never make promises you can't keep.
Protesters need special mention. They are trying to provoke a response so you will do something to embarrass the church in front of the cameras. You need to have a higher threshold before using increasing levels of force.
When faced with protesters, the important thing is to remain calm. Remember that you are not the target, so don't take things personally. Protesters may taunt, name call, swear, invade your space, use bizarre or insulting gestures.
Stay in control of your emotions. Jesus was called far worse things. Recognize your limits and let someone else take over if you're becoming angry. When engaging with protesters, set limits and always say "please" and "thank you".
"I want to help you but I find it difficult because of your name-calling. Will you please stop cursing so that I can work on helping you?" If they agree or stop (chances are they will be taken aback and will!) say, "Thanks, I appreciate it."
Final Thoughts on how to De-escalate the Situation
Know when to act. A person may be acting dangerously but not directly threatening any other person or herself. If possible, give him time to calm down. This requires patience and continuous safety evaluation. Use force only when it is necessary to protect yourself and others.