The term escalation refers to the steps that lead up to a conflict before it reaches the stage of an outright confrontation, resulting in a noisy exchange of insults, physical violence, or the parties spreading negative messages about each other online.
Before a war, escalation consists of the parties amassing weapons and exchanging threats and demands. Threats and the refusal of demands can also be part of the escalation phase of an interpersonal conflict, too, but it can also include both parties’ anger increasing even when they don’t directly engage with each other about it.
De-escalation means consciously pausing or reversing the escalation process. It is an important task in many different professions. Building your de-escalations skills can help you succeed in your career, no matter your line of work.
De-escalation is the practice of stopping or diverting a conflict before it reaches the level of physical violence. It involves getting angry people to calm down enough to back down from the conflict. If you work in law enforcement, healthcare, education, or customer service, then de-escalating conflict is a routine part of your job.
What is De-Escalation?
De-escalation is anything you do to prevent a fight or the breakdown of a business relationship.
For example, police officers often receive calls about escalating situations that could lead to violence, and de-escalation is the officers’ main goal once they arrive. Customer service representatives must use de-escalation practices when a customer calls to demand a refund. In this case, the customer service agent tries to de-escalate the situation to keep the customer’s business.
Almost any interpersonal conflict can be de-escalated; if you used to fight with your siblings when you were a child, your parents probably did plenty of de-escalation.
De-escalation is not the same as conflict resolution. It is possible to de-escalate a tense situation without solving the underlying problem. The goal of de-escalation is just to get the parties away from each other before they come to blows. At a minimum, you buy time. The parties may meet again when they are less angry and stressed, and they may be able to find a solution to their disagreement, or they may be able to agree to disagree.
The Psychological Aspect of De-Escalation
Conflict and disagreements are a normal part of life. We encounter frustrations and disappointments on a daily basis, and most of the time it does not lead to a fight. Escalation happens when the wrong people encounter the wrong problem under the wrong conditions.
When a customer overreacts and picks a fight with a cashier, the customer is probably stressed out about other things. Yes, the chicken is expensive, but the customer knows that it isn’t the cashier’s fault. The customer is also stressed because her phone bill is expensive and because only some of the gigs she works have paid her on time. The price of chicken is just the final straw in a haystack of frustrations.
Underlying stress is only one factor that can cause conflicts to escalate in the workplace. Everyone has different pet peeves that trigger their anger, and unless you have a long history with the person, it is difficult to predict what those are.
Some people can’t stand being yelled at, while others lose their tempers when people talk to them in a sarcastic or condescending tone. While not everyone is equally easily intimidated, you should always avoid speaking in a threatening tone while you are at work.
Principles of De-Escalation
The HEARD method is an approach to de-escalation that works in many different situations, both at work and in your personal life. In this context, HEARD stands for hear, empathize, apologize, resolve, and diagnose.
Active Listening and Empathy
Active listening (the “hear” of HEARD) and empathy (the “empathize” of HEARD) are the first steps to de-escalating a conflict. Even the most patient people get frustrated when they try to communicate with you, and it is obvious that you are not listening.
The first step is to show the other person that you understand what he or she was saying. Repeat the other person’s description of the problem in a calmer and more neutral way.
Empathy does not mean that you agree with the reason for the person’s anger, but it does mean acknowledging that the other person is frustrated. In other words, first, you show that you understand what the other person wants, and then acknowledge that the person is upset about it.
Remaining Calm and Composed
Staying calm when someone is insulting you or making false accusations against you is not easy. What strategy, technique, or motivation you use to remain calm when someone is trying to escalate a confrontation depends on you, your job, and the situation.
For some people, the motivation is to live up to the ideals of professionalism. Others want the moral high ground. You might even remind yourself that if you can stay calm while someone else throws a temper tantrum, you win.
If someone is being abusive or threatening, though, you can and should politely tell them to stop. If you fear for your safety, there are situations where you can remove yourself from the situation or rely on safety in numbers by having several of your coworkers present with you during potentially tense situations.
Building Rapport and Trust
Building a rapport with people you encounter at your job, even if they are unpleasant, is an important job skill in industries such as sales and customer service. It also helps you prevent conflicts and de-escalate them if they have already started.
Start off your interaction with each client by making a personal connection. For example, a customer’s T-shirt or keychain might tell you about a sports team he supports, a college he attended, or a city he visited. Therefore, if you get to a point in the sales negotiations where you disagree, it feels more like you are having a friendly disagreement with a buddy.
If the customer is already upset by the time you start interacting with him, then building rapport is part of the empathizing stage of HEARD. In other words, after you hear what the person has to say about the immediate problem, try to get him to talk about other things. People tend to open up when they find out that you care what they think. Soon, the problem-solving stage of your conversation will take on a much friendlier tone.
De-Escalation Strategies and Techniques
In the course of your job, you will probably have to de-escalate many different kinds of situations. If you are a teacher, a retail cashier, a restaurant server, or a police officer, then the volume and variety of conflicts you must de-escalate in a single workday would be enough to fill an anthology film.
There is no one-size-fits-all de-escalation strategy for workplace conflict. The bigger your repertoire of workplace de-escalation techniques, the more successful you will be.
Verbal De-Escalation Techniques
These are some effective verbal de-escalation techniques that you can use in person or on the phone:
- Ask open-ended questions, because conflict escalation is linear, but de-escalation is not
- Never interrupt people in the middle of a sentence, no matter how wrong they are
- Use reflective statements
- Avoid using emotionally charged language, even if the other person is doing it
Non-Verbal De-Escalation Techniques
Reading a transcript of the de-escalation of a conflict does not show you the whole picture. These are some non-verbal behaviors that can play a role in de-escalation:
- Maintain eye contact to show that you are listening
- Respect the other person’s personal space, and do not get any closer than you have to get in order to hear each other without speaking loudly
- Use an open body posture instead of folding your arms across your chest
Dealing With Aggression and Resistance
In most jobs, dealing with threats to your safety is not part of the job description. Employers should design the workspace and workflow to maximize safety. They should also train employees about how to deal with threatening situations, including when to call the police.
You should only de-escalate a situation in ways that do not threaten your physical safety. It is better to hand over the money in the cash register and report the incident to the police later than to try to stop an armed robbery by using the HEARD method.
If you are a customer service representative who deals with angry customers by phone, your best defense against aggression by customers is saying, “This call is being recorded for quality and training purposes” at the beginning of the call. Most people don’t like the idea of sounding like a jerk on a recording that is going to be played for untold numbers of trainee customer service representatives as an example of how to deal with a jerk.
Case Studies and Real-Life Examples
The best way to de-escalate a conflict in the workplace, and what to do after you have defused the immediate situation, depends on the context. These are some examples of how de-escalation techniques have successfully formed the first step in workplace conflict resolution.
Finding Out Everyone’s Perspective and Finding Common Ground
An office at a public sector entity was the scene of ongoing interpersonal conflict. Certain members of the team could hardly stand to talk to each other without getting angry.
The management called a mediator to the office. The mediator met with five employees in leadership roles separately. She worked to build a rapport with each one so that she could find out each person’s views on the situation. The next step was for the parties to meet together with the mediator. Some of them even signed written agreements about how they would deal with each other in the future.
Developing a Playbook for De-Escalating Common Scenarios
Rents were rising, tenants were stressed, and they were taking out their stress on the employees of the property management company. This led to daily conflicts and a generally poor relationship between the property management company and the tenants.
The managers hired de-escalation coaches to conduct workshops with more than 200 employees of the company. The employees practiced disengaging emotionally from the conflicts with the employees by visualizing resolutions to the problem and the entire HEARD process even while the tenants were ranting about the expensive rents.
Even though the price of rent was outside the employees’ control, so they were often not able to meet the tenants’ immediate requests, they were able to engage more empathetic with the tenants.
Preventing Teacher Burnout
An adult education school was experiencing high teacher turnover. Teachers felt disrespected, and so did students. They just could not see each other’s perspectives. A de-escalation trainer held open discussions with a group of teachers and taught them strategies for dealing with conflict with students. The result was less conflict and better employee retention.
De-Escalation Training Programs
Your workplace can benefit from de-escalation training, too. Reading about workplace de-escalation in a general sense is a good place to start. To achieve long-term success in your organization, though, you will need to develop a toolbox of strategies that specifically target the types of conflicts that your team members frequently encounter.
By attending a workshop on de-escalation and conflict management that is customized for your industry and your organization, your employees can learn how to prevent and resolve the conflicts that presently contribute to workplace stress.
Leaders in the organization can even participate in one-on-one sessions about how to resolve conflicts that escalate to the level where management must get involved. Mediation is only one solution to workplace conflict; in many cases, practical training is all you need.
Start De-Escalating With Pollack Peacebuilding Solutions
Pollack Peacebuilding Solutions has a proven record of success in helping employees in customer service, education, the public sector, and other fields reduce conflict among coworkers and with their customers and the beneficiaries of their services. You can choose the training course that best suits your workplace and its conflicts. Contact Pollack Peacebuilding Solutions today to find out more about our de-escalation and conflict management training programs and workshops.