Understanding the Psychology of De-Escalation: How it Works

Published: August 24, 2023 | Last Updated: September 8, 2023by Jeremy Pollack

Regardless of the workplace you’re in, it’s easy to understand the benefits of de-escalation training. Conflicts can occur anywhere for multiple reasons, so knowing how to de-escalate them can be a valuable skill.

However, while it’s relatively easy to learn the tactics and strategies used for de-escalation, there’s a lot of psychology and science behind them. So, let’s peel back the curtain and look at what’s going on inside this process. Here’s what you need to know about the psychology of de-escalation.

A Basic Overview of De-Escalation

First and foremost, let’s look at the core elements of de-escalation training. When a conflict breaks out, a trainee should focus on three things—active listening, calm communication, and conflict resolution. Here’s a quick overview of each element. 

Active Listening

Listening is a skill that requires one’s full attention on the speaker. However, active listening goes a step further by showing the speaker that you’re hearing what they’re saying, and that you understand it. 

Active listening should include the three “Rs”: repeat, reflect, and respond. 

  • Repeating what the other person is saying (not verbatim) shows that you’re paying attention. 
  • Reflecting on what they said means adding some personal insight or trying to understand what they mean. 
  • Responding can take on several forms, including asking follow-up questions or adding related commentary to the conversation.

With de-escalation, these steps are effective at letting the parties involved know that their concerns or frustrations are being heard. In many cases, simply acknowledging how they feel can be enough to help them calm down and listen to a compromise or resolution. 

Calm Communication

Communication is a cornerstone of any conflict resolution strategy, but when de-escalating a situation, it’s imperative to remain as calm as possible. Raising your voice or snapping at each individual will often escalate the conflict and make it harder to resolve. 

The goal is also to get each party to communicate calmly and clearly with one another. If the individuals can go from fighting to peaceful chatting, this illustrates successful de-escalation. In some cases, the best way to lower the tension of the situation is to start talking calmly yourself and let them bring themselves down to your level.

Conflict Resolution

It’s imperative to understand that resolving a conflict is not necessarily a one-time achievement. Usually, conflict resolution is an ongoing process that requires the involvement of each party and, in some cases, a mediator. 

However, when it comes to de-escalation training, conflict resolution means getting each party to agree to stop the conflict immediately. While there may be lingering issues underneath, what’s important is that both parties are not actively engaged in conflict with each other. 

For example, if two individuals are having a heated exchange in front of co-workers, a form of conflict resolution could be to have them go to a private area to discuss the problem quietly. While the actual resolution will occur later, the purpose of moving the location is to de-escalate the situation. 

The Psychology Behind De-Escalation Strategies

Knowing what to do is much different than understanding why it’s effective. Once you know the psychology behind de-escalation strategies, it’s much easier to be successful. Instead of just following a script, you can understand why something works and adapt accordingly. 

Learning the psychology of de-escalation enables you to be more adaptive and responsive in any situation. Since no two conflicts will be the same, this deeper understanding will come in handy. This way, you can adjust your strategy to connect with each individual and help them agree to a resolution, either in the short term or long term. 

employee conflict saas

Active Listening

We already discussed the three Rs of active listening, but let’s dive a little deeper to see how they can affect a conflict. 

Repeat

In this case, it’s not enough to just repeat what someone said to show that you’re listening. It’s also imperative to break down what they’re saying to show that you get the subtext. 

For example, let’s say that a conflict arose because one person said something inflammatory to another, sparking a reaction. When listening to the person who reacted, you can repeat their side of the story and infer deeper meanings behind it. For example, maybe the statement was disrespectful, and perhaps it wasn’t the first time that person said something like that. 

By summarizing what the other person is saying, you can illustrate that you’re both listening and engaged with their perspective. The other benefit of summarizing is that you can highlight the differences between your points of view. Perhaps you’re interpreting their words incorrectly, and now you can discuss what they actually mean to ensure that everyone is on the same page. 

Reflect

Reflection is a powerful tactic for de-escalation because it removes the reactive part of the conflict and internalizes it. There’s always a reason for someone to react a certain way, so reflection can help you understand why. 

In this stage, it’s imperative to dive a little deeper than a summarization. Using our above example, the disrespectful remark could have caused a reaction because the recipient feels unvalued or unappreciated within the company. The reaction could be based on systemic behavior, leading to a larger confrontation or conflict. 

Reflection is crucial for de-escalation because it helps get to the root of the problem. For example, if someone doesn’t feel respected or valued in the company, the solution could be positive feedback and reinforcement. 

Respond

This part of active listening can be the trickiest because it requires knowing how to respond and in what way. Sometimes, the best response is to stay silent and let the other person vent their frustrations. In other cases, the best response might be to ask questions and get the person to open up about what’s really going on underneath the surface. 

Here is where understanding the psychology of de-escalation can come in handy. Since stock responses or questions won’t work in every situation, you need to know how to adapt to individual conflicts. 

Also, it’s important to know what kind of response each party is expecting, as well as your position in the conflict resolution. For example, showing empathy to one person but not another could suggest favoritism and weaken your ability to mediate the situation. 

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to feel similar emotions of a person based on observing or interacting with them. Even if you haven’t lived the same experience, you can still empathize with them and understand why they feel a certain way after an incident. 

When it comes to de-escalation and conflict resolution training, empathy is an essential part of the process. While you want to maintain a professional disposition, it’s still imperative to empathize with both parties. 

It’s also crucial to understand that empathizing is not the same as condoning. If someone causes a conflict because of selfish or disrespectful behavior, you can understand their feelings but not agree with their actions. 

Empathy is also a critical part of the conflict resolution process. If you can’t see things from other points of view, it’s much harder to determine the best way to resolve the situation. Even if each party agrees to a compromise in the moment, there could be some lingering resentment that could lead to conflicts in the future. 

Psychological Triggers

A psychological or emotional trigger is something that causes an emotional response from an individual. Typically, a trigger occurs unconsciously and can lead to a more significant response than would otherwise be necessary. 

Triggers can often be a source of conflict because the person feeling triggered may engage in more aggressive behavior than they would otherwise. Because of the larger reaction, that could spark a similarly aggressive stance from the other individual, escalating into a full-blown conflict. 

So, part of de-escalation training must involve understanding the three types of psychological triggers

  • Anxiety
  • Trauma
  • Anger

It can be hard to know what type of trigger occurred, and the person involved may not even realize that they have a specific trigger. As a rule, this kind of conflict resolution requires in-depth analysis, far more than a trainee would be able to provide. 

However, during a conflict de-escalation session, a trainee may be able to identify that one or both individuals have triggers. From there, it’s up to them to seek further assistance in determining what causes them and how to resolve them. 

From a de-escalation standpoint, knowing about triggers can simply help you identify the root cause of a conflict. Afterward, you can recommend professional help or a mediation strategy that helps remove or mitigate triggers in the future. 

Body Language

Communication involves a lot more than just speaking words. For example, a big reason why it can be so hard to gauge emotion in writing is that there’s no body language accompanying it. So, individuals bring their own emotions and thought processes into the writing, meaning they may interpret it differently than someone else. 

Body language can involve many different elements, such as: 

  • Eye Contact
  • Facial Expressions
  • Hand Gestures
  • Mannerisms
  • Movement (i.e., walking or pacing)
  • Other Physical Behavior (i.e., crossing one’s arms)

The psychology of body language is expansive and too complex to break down in full detail, but here are some quick tidbits to understand: 

  • Body Language Reflects Internal Emotions – For example, if someone is hunched over or crossing their arms, they could feel guarded or defensive. Conversely, an open posture could mean they’re feeling more positive and open-minded. 
  • Eye Contact Shows Engagement – If someone is looking away, they may not be as engaged as someone looking into your eyes. Eye movement could also indicate distractions, both internal and external. 
  • Loose Movements Could Indicate Strong Emotions – If someone is waving their hands erratically or pacing back and forth, their emotions are likely in control. However, if that person has steady, articulate movements, it can likely mean they’re mentally in control. 

It’s also imperative to understand how your body language can affect the situation, too. Be mindful of your own eye contact and body movement, as other people can pick up on it subconsciously. So, even if your words are authentic, you may present a different story with your body. 

Schedule De-Escalation Training for Your Team

If you’re ready to learn more about de-escalation or to have your employees learn about it, give us a call! We offer comprehensive training programs for a wide array of businesses and industries. Our goal is to provide you with the best training possible, so schedule a consultation today. 

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Jeremy Pollack

Jeremy Pollack is the Founder and CEO of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems.