There are two parts to deescalating a situation: security and customer service. Security of the business, the employees, and the customers and visitors can seem more straightforward. Customer service is a little bit more complicated.
How Does A Situation Escalate?
First, escalation happens in a situation where one or more people feel threatened by another. This can be an emotional, verbal, or physical threat. Sometimes, the situation deescalates by itself. Either one of the participants or back down.
Second, escalation happens when the threatened person acts defensively. They can do this through body language, words, or by striking back. Ideally, we can deescalate the situation before it gets to that point.
Lastly, a wrongly-handled situation can become a larger issue for a business and the people involved. This is why customer service should always be part of the picture, even if it’s the secondary consideration.
How to Deescalate A Situation
The word “escalate” literally came from “escalator,” which came from “escalade”—to climb a wall using a ladder. An escalating situation is taking step after step towards a conflict. You need to deescalate the situation by helping people go back down that ladder.
Take it out of the workplace
As much as you can, try to take the situation out of the front-of-store or workplace lobby. A space where people can sit down and, more importantly, not risk the safety of others, would be best.
Begin with asking if they are okay with taking it somewhere quieter and more relaxed. Let them feel like you want to help them sort things out. This applies to employees, customers, and visitors, or any combination of the three.
Pay attention to the signs
The majority of disagreements between people deescalate by themselves. One or more of the parties leave, or they resolve it by themselves without intensive escalation. However, there are some signs that a situation is escalating.
- People get in each other’s personal space. The official “social distance” is 4 to 12 feet. At that range, people can converse but not reach one another. Once they start stepping forward within 1 to 4 feet, that is “personal distance.” This is one of the signs a situation is escalating.
- Their voices change. People usually notice a conflict because they hear “raised voices.” This means anything from louder voices, to higher-pitched voices, or both. It means that one or both parties is becoming tense, or is trying to make a point by using verbal force.
These are the two most obvious signs of an escalating situation.
Listen, listen, listen
There are two reasons a situation escalates to physical conflict:
- One side feels backed into a corner, and tries to fight their way out; or
- One side feels like they have no other way to express or convince the other person of their emotions.
For a situation to deescalate, each side must feel heard.
- Introduce yourself, and ask for their names. Calling people’s names helps them be more aware of themselves and the situation.
- Ask each side to tell their sides one at a time. As the most emotionally stable in the room (hopefully), both sides will appeal to you for understanding. Do your best to keep them from interrupting one another.
- Listen patiently to both sides and try to understand what they are saying. Don’t listen just to get the conversation over with. They already don’t feel heard or understood. Your role is to help them feel both heard and understood.
- Listening earns you the right to speak. After they release emotions, you should have a chance to bring the situation even further from the possibility of conflict.
Start with the person who felt offended, or the one who first escalated the situation. If you don’t know which party that is, speak to each person by turns.
- Find a point to agree with. You need to find common ground with each party so they feel like you are coming from the same place. It might not be a specific statement they make, but it might be a general emotion they refer to.
- Accept a point they made. Acknowledge something they said that helped you understand more about the situation. They should feel like they successfully made themselves understood to you.
- Confirm where the disagreement is coming from. Try to summarize what they don’t agree on, and ask both parties to confirm that you got it right.
- Ask both parties to discuss the solution. Emotions escalate situations. After helping both parties talk through the disagreement, they are more likely to be rational and think through the situation. Here you can listen again, or even leave them to discuss or take action however it is needed.
Security Comes First
Your job is to protect the business, its employees, and then its customers and visitors. If you can deescalate the situation, it’s best for the image of the business and the safety of everyone in the long run. If a situation cannot be deescalated quickly enough, focus on evacuating others and calling law enforcement.