De-escalation Techniques

De-escalation consists of verbal and non-verbal techniques for defusing potentially dangerous behavior. The goal is to build rapid rapport and a sense of connection with an agitated person. These skills are useful in dealing with people who are highly agitated, frustrated, angry, fearful or intoxicated.


Two important concepts to keep in mind:

1.     Reasoning with a very angry person is not possible. De-escalation is aimed at reducing the level of arousal so that discussion becomes possible.

2.     De-escalation techniques are not our normal responses. We are driven to engage in "fight or flight" when scared. In de-escalation we can do neither but must appear centered and calm even when we are anything but calm. Therefore these techniques must be practiced so we can use them when needed.


Physical Aspects of De-escalation Techniques:

1.     Never turn your back.

2.     Try to position yourself in a room where you have easy access to the door, but definitely make sure the angry person cannot block your exit, should the need arise. If you will be meeting with someone who you think might get hostile, arrange to meet in a larger space, e.g. the library.

3.     Encourage the individual to sit, but if he/she stands, you stand also so you maintain the same eye level.

4.     Expand the usual distance between you and the angry person. There should be about 4 times the normal distance between you or at least two arms' lengths. Anger and agitation take up a lot of room!

5.     Avoid constant eye contact that can be perceived as staring. Allow the individual to look away.

6.     Keep a neutral facial expression. A calm, attentive expression reduces hostility.

7.     Do not point or shake your finger.

8.     Do not touch the other person.

9.     Keep your hands in front of your body in an open and relaxed position. This makes you seem non-threatening: and allows you to defend yourself if needed by using your hands for blocking. Avoid crossed arms, hands in your pockets, or arms behind the back.

10.  If possible, casually position yourself behind a barrier, such as a sofa, desk, large chair, table, etc.                                

11.  Minimize body movements such as excessive gesturing, pacing, fidgeting or weight shifting as these are indicators of nervousness and tend to increase the other person’s agitation.

12.  Make sure that you are not directly in front of the other person, but rather slightly to the side.  If they turn to face you, turn slightly creating a 30-45 degree angle between you and them.

Emotional Aspects:

1.     Appear calm, centered and self-assured.

2.     Breathe normally and deeply to help you control your own emotions.

3.     Speak clearly and slowly, in a moderate tone of voice.

4.     Be very respectful even when firmly setting limits or calling for help.  The agitated person is very sensitive to feeling shamed and not respected. Treat him/her with dignity and respect.

5.     Be aware of the resources available for back-up spaces.  Do not meet with an individual alone if you anticipate he/she is likely to become angry or aggressive.

6.     Pause to drink water when possible.


The De-escalation Discussion:

1.     The goal of de-escalation is to try and bring the level of arousal down.

2.     Do not raise your voice to be heard over a screaming person.  Wait until he/she takes a breath, and then calmly talk in a soft, modulated tone. Allow time for the person to tire out. Listen actively and acknowledge the person’s anger, e.g. “I understand you are upset.”

3.     Respond selectively: answer only informational questions no matter how rudely asked, e.g. “Why do I have to fill out these *** forms?" DO NOT answer abusive questions, e.g. "Why are you such a**?" The latter type questions should get no response.

4.     Explain limits in an authoritative, firm, but always respectful tone. Find choices, where possible, in which both alternatives are safe ones, e.g. “Would you like to continue our meeting calmly or would you prefer to stop now and come back tomorrow when things can be more relaxed?"

5.      Empathize with feelings but not with the behavior, e.g. "I understand that you have every right to feel angry, but it is not okay for you to threaten me or other staff."

6.     Do not ask how the person is feeling or attempt to interpret their feelings.

7.     Do not interrupt, argue or try to convince. Allow a full expression of needs and grievances when appropriate.

8.     Wherever possible, tap into the person's thinking (as opposed to feeling) mode: DO NOT ask "Tell me how you feel" but rather "Help me to understand what you are saying to me."

9.     Suggest alternative behaviors where appropriate, e.g. "Would you like to take a break and have some water?"

10.   Give the consequences of inappropriate behavior without threats or anger, e.g. "Please stop. If you continue to threaten and yell at me, this conversation is over and I will be forced to ask you to leave when I really want to try to help."

11.   Represent external controls as institutional rather than personal, e.g. "The organization’s policy is ..."

12.   Trust your instincts. If you assess or feel that de-escalation is not working, STOP! Tell the person to leave, escort him/her to the door, call for help or leave and call 911.


This is not a magical process. You are transferring your sense of calm, respectful, clear limit setting to the agitated person in the hope that he/she actually wishes to respond positively to your respectful attention.

(Above techniques were adapted from NASW Massachusetts and the Bureau of Emergency Management of the Texas Department of Health by JF&CS)

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