One of the most important elements in self-protection is the use of verbal de-escalation tactics, particularly for security and law enforcement professionals. Our first response should always be to resolve situations without the use of force.
The Purpose of Verbal De-escalation
There are many reasons for both police and private citizens to use force only as a last resort, (liability, paperwork, etc) but the most important one is safety. If you can avoid using physical skills to defend yourself, you’re much less likely to get injured.
Verbal de-escalation tactics mix a number of skills and require practice just like physical techniques. You need to remain calm under stressful conditions and walk the fine line of assertiveness that runs just between passive and aggressive when responding to a potentially hostile situation.
If you act passively, your potential attacker may see you as prey, which can motivate him to press forward with his assault. However, if you respond with aggression, may escalate to violence in his response in order to save face.
The Difficulties of Training through Role-play
The problem with verbal de-escalation tactics is that they’re difficult to practice. Role-playing scenarios are the favoured method, but they require acting and a suspension of disbelief on the part of the participants. I’ve participated in a number of role-playing scenarios over the years, training with police, security professionals, and even customer relations companies, and there are some serious challenges to making them successful. It’s difficult to recreate the tension and atmosphere of a potential assault. People instinctively laugh or make jokes, not to mention the fact that most people aren’t actors.
People also tend to over-think. I remember doing a post-session critique with a constable after some scenarios at the Justice Institute of BC, and in one of my scenarios I was always a step behind, because I wasn’t thinking, “how do I deal with this guy” I was thinking, “how do they want me to deal with this guy” so instead of just handling it, I was second-guessing every response.
Getting the Most Out of Scenario Training
Here are a few tips for teachers to help students get the most out of verbal de-escalation training:
- Set the proper tone right away. Most teachers incorporate humour and levity into their teaching in an effort to keep people engaged. This is not an ideal time to be doing bits of stand-up. Get everyone into a serious mind-set. It makes it easier for participants to believe the scenarios. That’s not to rule out humour as a tool within scenarios. Defusing a situation with humour is great, but just make sure to keep it within the confines of the role-play.
- Prepare. If you leave participants to come up with the scenarios on their own, or allow a large amount of improvisation, then people are more likely to goof around or do weird things that will break the tension.
- Develop believable & realistic scenarios. If you’re in a session with security professionals who regularly work events that are attended by gang members then it makes sense to cover that. If you’re teaching caretakers at a senior’s home then that gang scenario is likely going to seem ridiculous, and they participants are not likely to take the scenario seriously.
- Prepare the aggressors adequately. Numerous scenarios have run out of steam, or gone sideways because an aggressor didn’t know what to say or do next. You can’t script out a role-play, but if an attacker knows they should get surlier if the person gets angry, or that they should start yelling if the person is too passive, it helps keep the scenario moving.
- Don’t give the defender time to prepare. Have them sit in the hall, or another room while you give the attackers instruction. Give the defender the scenario as you walk them into the situation. You want to prevent them from spending too much time thinking about it. They should have enough time to do a quick mental assessment of the situation and then begin. That’s how it tends to happen on the street.
- Do not wait for success. Scenarios go wrong. In straight physical self-defense, we focus on never giving up, and fighting until you create your opportunity to escape. It doesn’t work that way in de-escalation scenarios. That’s not to say everything is wrapped up in 30 seconds. I’ve spent up to 15 minutes talking people down on the job, but that’s not the norm. Keep a close eye on the scenario and stop it before it runs out of steam. Any time someone starts blathering, the scene is dead. Failures are often more illuminating than successes.
- Keep things fresh and unexpected. If you tell someone they’re dealing with one potential attacker, don’t hesitate to add in someone else if it makes sense. Change the goals of the defender between scenarios. Maybe it’s to delay until backup or police arrive rather than just escape.
- Structured post scenario critique. Always do a post-scenario critique, but keep control of it. Start with what went well, and to keep any observers engaged, get them to list the positive points. Find out what they might have done differently. This is a great time for people to get different perspectives and ideas for how to deal with people. And don’t forget to remind everyone that it’s much easier to think of brilliant solutions while watching, rather than being involved.
De-escalation tactics training scenarios can be very rewarding and fun, but the big trick is to manage the atmosphere and keep people in the moment.
Do you do scenario based de-escalation tactics training? What’s worked to keep them on topic and productive? Please comment or ask questions below.