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Verbal De-Escalation

This is a topic I like to review once a year because it is such a worthwhile subject to keep brushed up on. A lot of this comes from the work of Dr George Thompson, a psychiatrist turned police officer who created a course called Verbal Judo, and I encourage you to look up his work yourself. Other aspects have come from my wife, Jenn, whose work as a therapist has given me additional insights. Finally, I have added my own experience in customer service and fast talking my way out of conflict to round this material out.

I’ll be discussing this De-Escalation responses to the first 3 stages of de-escalation: Anxiety Stage, Defensive Stage, and Acting out Stage. I will also be adding a fourth stage that I’d like to start with, which I call the Proactive Stage which deals with assertive skills when discussing emotional or challenging topics.

As we review this process, consider your motivations and responsibility to the other person. Unless you are in a position like a caregiver or a police officer, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away from the situation. It may be just a matter of saying the situation has become too tense, let’s come back to it after I’ve had a chance to calm down. It’s important not to put it on them by saying they are too angry, since that creates an emotional response, but rather put it on yourself, even if it’s not true.

Warning signs

As we start this process you must be constantly observing them to look for dangerous behaviors. Often people don’t realize they are in a fight until they’ve been attacked. But these signs tell us that the fight has probably already started. You either need to get out of there or take them down immediately. Don’t just wait to see what’s going to happen. If you don’t want to attack first you need to at least anticipate they are going to attack you and prepare to counter them.

Warning signs include

  • Clenched teeth

  • Pacing

  • Sudden silence

  • Staring at you

  • Refusal to look at you

  • Looking around to see if anyone else is watching

  • Reaching into pockets or lifting their shirt to pull out an unidentified item

  • Making fists

  • Entering your personal space

The De-Escalation Stance

During this whole process, assume a non threatening posture designed to protect yourself. When I do this, my hands will be up to shoulder level in front of me in a sort of whoa, there, there motion to give a nonthreatening signal to my opponent. But they are also ready to protect me or to go to top bicep control to keep me safe. My feet will remain staggered slightly with a slight bend in the knees so that if he tries to push or punch I can keep myself standing. It’s important not to make physical contact until you are ready to commit to a fight.

In the de-escalation stance we want to use our concerned face. We also need to be very conscious of our tone, which is unspoken but expressed. Whenever we are in this stance, we are also aware of our environment, including exits, objects we can put between us, other people who might be a threat to you or who might be in danger from this person, objects that can be used as tactical weapons of opportunity.


Often people, particularly men, are motivated by ego when thinking about conflict. No one wants to think that someone else is getting one over on them though, and wants the world to know they can’t be pushed around. So when someone becomes aggressive, they often meet it with their own aggression, in many cases resorting to intimidation, and even violence as a response. So we need to reframe our minds. Instead of thinking about how we can dominate through aggression, volume, or unwillingness to back down to another, we reframe it. If we think about how we can outsmart other people, to make them our puppets, it plays into our ego, not against it.

I like to think about verbal de-escalation as its own martial arts pursuit, in the same way that self defense, jiu jitsu, or poomse are all different pursuits in martial arts. The cultivation of the art of verbal warfare. This means that my pursuit in the betterment of verbal warfare is the pursuit toward my overall goal of martial arts development. I am motivated to use this skill, just as I would be excited to use any other self defense technique.

The primary goal of verbal de-escalation is to prevent emotional responses from heightening a conflict, and particularly to prevent them from reaching the point of violence.

The second goal is that of manipulation. It is the directing of another to a preferable outcome. You don’t really trick them so much as help them see past their anxiety or anger.

Proactive Stage

In the proactive stage, using assertive language skills, we are going to use the DEAR MAN strategy. DEAR MAN is a DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) skill designed for people who struggle with mental disorders resulting from intense negative emotions. But the skills apply to anyone who is looking for a better way to engage in potentially challenging conversations. We all have to sometimes have a tough conversation with a boss, coworker, friend, or family member. DEAR MAN is a strategy to regulate emotions and keep the conversation to the topic.

The DEAR MAN information below comes from the worksheet provided by Therapist Aid LLC.

The acronym DEAR MAN outlines a strategy for communicating effectively. This strategy will help you express your wants and needs in a way that is respectful to yourself and others. Using DEAR MAN will increase the likelihood of positive outcomes from your interactions.

  • Describe - Clearly and concisely describe the facts of the situation, without any judgment. What are the facts of the situation? Do not include opinions or interpretations. (example: You have asked me to work late 3 days this week.)

  • Express - Use “I” statements to express your emotions. Create an “I” statement to express your feelings: “I feel _____ when _____.” ( ie: I feel overwhelmed by the extra work I’ve been given.)

  • Assert - Clearly state what you want or need. Be specific when giving instructions or making requests. How will you tell someone what you need? Respond with the specific language you will use. (example:“I need to resume my regular 40-hour work week.”)

  • Reinforce - Reward the other person if they respond well to you. How will you reward the other person for responding well to you? (example: smiling, saying “thank you”, and other kind gestures work well as reinforcement.)

  • Mindfulness - Being mindful of your goal means not getting sidetracked or distracted by other issues. What is the goal of your interaction? What other topics might distract from the goal? (example: “I would like to resolve the overtime issue before talking about the upcoming project.”)

  • Appear confident Use body language to show confidence, even if you don’t feel it. Stand up straight, make appropriate eye contact, speak clearly, and avoid fidgeting.

  • Negotiate - Know the limits of what you are willing to accept, but be willing to compromise within them. (example: “I’ll finish the extra work this week, but I won’t be able to manage the same amount of work next week.”)

Anxiety Stage

In the Anxiety stage, there is often a lot of nonverbal communication which accompanies the conversation such as pacing, playing with an object, wringing hands, and fidgeting.

You must avoid the use of natural language, but rather focus on tactical language. Do not speak in a way that reflects your own emotions, but rather use a performative, professional language. If it makes you feel good, don’t say it. Consider if you are saying something to win or to de-escalate.

Use indirect language. Don’t say you, but we. So for example, don’t say “you are getting angry” but rather “we are getting a little tense here.”

Speak quietly so they have to work a little to hear you. Don’t interrupt. Mostly you should listen, but occasionally it is good to paraphrase and restate. Not only does it help them to know you are listening and correct you if you are not understanding, but people will shut the fuck up for a second to listen and make sure you got it right, even if they are just looking for a chance to correct you. It allows you to derail them a bit in their anger. “Let me make sure I understand. You are feeling <insert emotion (anxious, frustrated, nervous)> because <insert precipitating event>.”

You must always remain calm and non-judgmental. Just like in fighting, you must be the calm in the center of the storm. When you get angry, you lose the ability to be tactical. Anger is like a drug that clouds your mind. Sometimes it even feels good to be angry, but it creates vascoconstriction which inhibits blood flow, and shuts down the forebrain, which is responsible for tactical thought.

Often, others will use insults to try to create an angry or emotional response. Once you recognize it as a tactic, you can depersonalize it. Even if it's true, it’s just a weapon they are trying to use against you. You wouldn’t let a jab through, so why let an insult through. Note it as a tactic, redirect, and don’t let it define who you are. To do this, you must have confidence in yourself. If you know your strengths and weaknesses, and have come to terms with them in the deepest part of your mind, they cannot be used against you.

Asimov once wrote that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. In a verbal dispute, name calling is the last. When someone runs out of valid points they resort to name calling.

If it’s a one off comment from a bully, you might use confusion or redirection against insults. Like if they say “nice shirt loser” you might say “thanks, you know what they say about guys in blue shirts.” If they call you on it, just imply it’s common knowledge and you shouldn’t have to spell it out.

But if it’s a real de-escalation you just ignore it and move on. When they realize insults don’t get them anywhere, they will abandon the tactic. Your calmness will bring them back and you can even use it as a metric to see how you are winning them over. As they swear less and insult less, it means you are making headway.

Sometimes, the best way to take the wind out of their sails is to apologize or agree with them. It doesn’t mean you agree with them, and you can bring it around later, but it stuns them.

Remain Empathetic. When you stop thinking like them, you become ineffective. Allow them to save face. If you can make them look good, this whole process becomes easier. Sometimes people get angry and back themselves into a corner, so if you can give them an out where they don’t look like a bad guy or a clown, they’ll often take it.

Finally, provide options and limits. It’s important to explain context and highlight the positive choice by appealing to their self interest. The hard part is then, you have to let them make their choice.

A better result case #1

Years ago I had a boss who liked to micromanage. One day he came into my office and just started yelling at me saying things like “I don’t understand why you keep making mistakes and such.” He was really angry to the point he may have even been considering firing me. I put up my hand and said, “you know what, you’re right. I’m sorry about these mistakes. Let’s sit down and see if we can figure out where the miscommunication is happening and sort it out.” Just like that the conversation tone completely changed. We worked it out and he felt like order had been restored. Not only that but he was happy about my performance and I was better able to find out what he wanted me to do going forward.

This worked because I was calm and I just agreed with him and apologized. I didn’t actually feel like I was messing up, and by the time I was done, he didn’t either.

A better result case #2

When I got divorced I would occasionally frequent a bar called Scalpers. The drinks were cheap, I had a couple close friends who hung out there a lot, and it was as good of a place as any to meet girls.

One night one of those sorts of guys who landscapes, has a tattoo of the boot, wears a gold chain, and lives with his Grandma was hanging out with a couple buddies and he was trying to show off. I was trying to walk by him and he deliberately shoulder checked me a bit. It wasn’t really hard or anything, but I think he wanted to show dominance and try to punk me or maybe start a fight or something. When I turned toward him, he asked, “What?” loudly and got in my personal space to try to stare me down.

I took a deep breath and assumed the de-escalation stance. I told him, “It’s pretty crowded in here. We must have accidentally bumped into each other.” He tried to turn it on me and accused me of doing it deliberately, trying to get me riled up. I could tell he wasn’t even really angry, he was just showing off for his friends. So I stayed calm, and said, “look, you’re obviously a guy who can handle himself, and I’m not looking to get beat up. I don’t really need that tonight. You can either kick my ass and get thrown out of here, maybe even get arrested, or you can go chat up some girls and maybe you’ll get lucky.” He did a sort of shrug thing as if to say “That’s right.” like he was letting me go, then turning back to his friends and laughing.

Now you need to understand that I’d been going to Scalpers fairly regularly for about a year now, mostly drinking juice (since I’m not much of a drinker) and hanging out with friends, and even occasionally doing some bad karaoke. As a result, I got to know Frank the owner a bit. He was a really nice guy and he even let me hang a flyer up for my newly started martial arts program by the door. After I walked away from the guy who tried to start a fight with me, I saw him walk toward the door to go outside and smoke. I saw him look slightly to the left where he saw my flyer. I saw it register on his face. Then I saw him look back at me as he realized how close he came to getting into a fight with the wrong guy. I raised my glass a bit at him before he walked out the door and didn’t return.

This worked because I kept cool, used “We” statements, gave him options, and let him save face. The fact it had a fun ending was just a bonus.

Defensive Stage

In this stage, now the other person is ramping up, questioning authority, being noncompliant, yelling, and even making threats.

At this point you should be creating space between you, moving toward and exit, and putting objects like tables and chairs between you.

Here you should be trying to actively disengage, so long as you don’t have a responsibility to continue further. Don’t put it on them, by saying “you are getting angry,” but rather take the hit and say “I’m getting upset and I need to end this conversation.”

If you cannot leave the situation you need to start thinking proactively about what you are going to do if it turns physical. If they are following you or won’t let you leave, you aren’t in the Defensive Stage anymore, but have moved to the Acting Out Stage.

This is the area where people get sucked back in. You have to remind yourself that there is nothing you can achieve at this point. You cannot let yourself continue to engage no matter how much you want to. The more stupid the things they say and the more you disagree, the harder it is to leave. But you have to know you can’t convince someone of anything in this stage, so it’s better to retreat and engage another time.

Acting Out Stage

In this stage there is a loss of emotional or physical control. You need to treat this as the fighting stage. You should be actively defending yourself to the extent that you are morally and legally compelled to. This may involve restraint, fleeing, or something more severe.

Even if they haven’t put hands on you yet, this is often the time that you should take the initiative. I described earlier that often people are in a fight even if they don’t know they are. This is the time you need to accept you are in a fight, and it’s best to take the initiative. Legally, it doesn’t matter who hits first, so you should take them out quickly and keep yourself safe.

A lot of people get caught up on the moral side of not being the first one to hit, because that’s what their parents taught them. But I can guarantee their parents didn’t understand this dangerous gray area that occurs in the acting out stage between verbal and physical, in the moment that is in between, when the fight is inevitable. That moment requires defense of oneself, because it doesn’t matter who hits first. You can either wait for them to hit you first and have to fight from a position of disadvantage, being a step behind, or you can take the initiative and end the fight more quickly.. But either way that fight is happening.

In this case it is actually more moral to strike first, because you can better control the situation. If I take the initiative, I can shoot a blast double, get to a mount, turn them over with a gift wrap and take the back, where I can restrain this person safely. If I don’t, and I have to wait for them, I’m going to get hurt, and have to scramble to save myself, putting not only myself more at risk, but my opponent, who I now have to take more severe action to deal with this threat.

Your chance to get out of this without violence passed you by already. You had your chance to talk. You had your chance to leave. You already screwed up if you are this deep into things. So now is the time to strike first and strike hard. Be aggressive and intimidating. Scream loudly with a war face and overwhelm them with volume and intensity immediately.

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