De-escalating Tense Field Encounters

Often Difficult, Seldom Impossible

A common question asked during de-escalation training sessions is, “When we’re on the job (in the field), more and more people are coming at us in a blind rage. Why is it so hard to get people to calm down and listen to reason?” My typical response is that the answer is very simple and yet tremendously complex (a true bureaucratic, clear as mud response, right?). To be clearer, the core issue of most hostile encounters is usually very simple. But discovering what that core issue is can be a complex and difficult task.

Many conflicts hinge on a key issue such as fear, apprehension, and respect. The key to de-escalation is identifying and resolving the core issue. However, that issue will seldom be immediately obvious.

Before we dig into the details, let’s step back and make a couple of observations. First, you can’t de-escalate every situation, so don’t even try. And remember that confrontations are fluid and situations can change astonishingly fast. This means making a quick and decisive assessment, coupled with ongoing alertness. You’ll need to decide if de-escalation is possible. If it is, then be mindful of signs that the conversation is deteriorating. If you see it spiraling out of control, then extract yourself for safety’s sake. Keep these two principles in mind during any attempt at de-escalation.

The goal of de-escalation is mastery over mounting aggression without minimizing, insulting, or embarrassing the other person. It’s not to win an argument. To engage in effective de-escalation, you’ll need an arsenal of techniques at your disposal to help you overcome the conflict. Now for the good and bad news.

The good news is that almost anyone can learn to de-escalate volatile situations. With minimal instruction and practice, you’ll increase your ability to de-escalate hostile situations.

The bad news is that most “over-the-counter” de-escalation training isn’t that helpful for operational field personnel. Hostile field encounters tend to be unique in circumstance, character, and configuration. Confrontations take place on private property, along roadways, and public sites. They take place in the middle of the night, in the heat of the day, and in severe weather. Typical de-escalation training doesn’t deal with the unique issues encountered in the field or the myriad of application variables that impact them.

As stated earlier, at the heart of most hostile encounters is a simple core issue, and most of these will center around fear, apprehension, or a perceived lack of respect. Sometimes the core issue will be historical. It could be something that took place a few weeks, months, years, or decades back. It can even be something that happened to someone else. But realize the issue, however dated, is real to the person that you’re dealing with at the moment. Now add to this the facts that you’re on their property and you’re doing something that they’re not happy about (turning off the power, cutting their favorite tree, or digging up their manicured yard), and you’ve got the makings of a “jim-dandy” conflict. Just remember, the key to de-escalation in these situations is to unveil, and deal with, the true basis of the conflict.

The fearful person will need reassurance that you’ll assuage their concerns. The apprehensive person will need evidence that you’re trustworthy. The person with respect issues will need confidence that your actions are not a personal or reputational attack. Once you identify and deal with the core issue, your chances of deescalating the conflict go way up. And with the core issue out of the way, you can make inroads into resolving the confrontation.

Countering aggression in the field takes skill. And mastering de-escalation tradecraft requires a commitment to learning. Look for training that delves into the problems faced in the field. And find a trainer that addresses the unique needs of your profession.

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Jim Willis, CMAS, CHS-V, is president of InDev Tactical, a security training and consulting firm that has provided security advisory assistance to utility, military, corporate, government, educational and religious institution clients for over 15 years. Jim is a credentialed homeland security expert and consultant skilled in security training, planning, counterterrorism, and security operations.

Jim is presenting on this topic at the 2020 CGA Excavation Safety Conference in Palm Springs. Learn more on page 23. He can be reached at jim.willis@indevtactical.net.

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