Calm Down Please, Part II – Iain Abernethy


Another simple but effective part of verbal de-escalation is to avoid “you statements” and as much as possible stick to “I statements”. “I statements” show you are taking responsibility (or at least give the impression you are) and are more likely to help people calm down and promote co-operation. “You statements” however can come across as argumentative, judgmental and accusatory. Saying, “I’m sorry but I’m having trouble understanding” is more effective than saying, “You are not making yourself clear.”

Remember it is not about being “right”; it’s about calming things down and avoiding things getting physical. It’s time to put your ego to one side and say what needs to be said to de-escalate not saying what needs to be said to “win the argument”.

Violence can often be triggered by “the small things” when we are dealing with volatile or agitated people. We need to avoid making the other person feel weak, small, trapped, frustrated, pressured, afraid, and so on. Say what needs to be said to calm the person down and know that you are not “loosing face” but being smart enough and skilled enough to prevent things getting physical.

Tone of voice is also an important consideration. Here in the UK raising your voice can be seen as a sign of losing your temper or trying to dominate the other person. Keeping an even tone is therefore very important if we wish to calm a situation down. Things are different in different parts of the world of course and in Southern Europe raising your voice would not be automatically associated with aggression. It is important to be aware of the cultural norms and work within them. This is especially important for those who travel a lot as judging things by the standards of another culture (or subculture for that matter) can cause problems. Both we and the person we are trying to calm down are likely to judge what is said, and how it is said, and all aspects of non-verbal communication, by the standards of our own culture. We need to be aware of this in order to avoid confusion.

A simple example is the distance at which people talk to one another. In the UK and the rest of Northern Europe conversations typically take place at just outside an arm’s length. If a person were to move inside that space while talking it could be taken as an attempt to invade “personal space” and hence a threat (quite legitimately). However, in other parts of the world (i.e. southern Europe, the Middle East, etc) it would be the norm to be closer when talking and hence a negative reaction to a person being a little closer could inflame things unnecessarily.

Generally speaking, people are more trusting of those who speak and act like themselves. This could make you think that “mirroring” the person you are trying to de-escalate could be the way to go. However, “acting the part” is unlikely to work with a person from another culture, part of the world or subculture. It can be taken as mocking, belittling, or being false and is unlikely to help. Looking for common ground can be helpful though, as can trying to develop empathy by using the LEAPS communication model discussed earlier.

One other communication model that is relevant here is “Betari’s Box”.  Basically “the box” is made up of four parts and essentially can be summed up as:

“My Attitude” affects “My Behaviour” affects “Your Attitude” affects “Your Behaviour” … affects “My attitude” and so on in a cycle.

To give a simple example: Person A is in a bad mood (their attitude) and hence they overreact (their behaviour) to Person B accidentally bumping into them. The behaviour of Person A affects the attitude of Person B towards them. If Person B were to take an aggressive attitude they are likely to respond with aggressive behaviour. The aggressive behaviour of Person B affects the attitude of Person A who, now convinced that the accidental bumping was an act of aggression, responds in kind. Before we know where we are the situation escalates out of control and physical conflict ensues. The trick therefore is not to let the cycle run away with itself in a negative way, and to break the cycle if it looks to be heading that way. Also, and this is very important, know that controlling your own attitude and behaviour can have a big effect on the attitude and behaviour of the other person. Don’t fuel the situation, but remove that fuel.

To take the example I’ve just given, if Person B had immediately apologised in a warm and sincere fashion that could have affected Person A’s attitude toward them and hence conflict could have been avoided as different cycle could have ensued. Essentially, your behaviour will affect the other person’s behaviour so be sure you do what you can to avoid unintentionally promoting aggression.

So far in this article we have looked at some of the basics surrounding verbal de-escalation. I now want to quickly touch on a few key points of the verbal side of self-protection generally. I’m not going to go into much detail here, but I feel it is important that I mention these things in order to put what we have discussed so far into some kind of context.

Firstly, be aware that sometimes the criminal wants to talk so they can engage you, detain you or distract you. Get good awareness training and trust your instincts about people and situations. Don’t talk to people you should not be talking to. Just keep on walking and flee if appropriate.

Secondly, don’t try to talk your way out of a situation when you should be fighting your way out or fleeing. Remember that you can’t reason with the unreasonable and you can’t talk your way out of all situations.

Thirdly, be aware that it could go physical at any moment and that processional criminals will be experienced at lulling potential victims into a false sense of security. Just because it looks like a situation is de-escalating does not mean that it is! The criminal could be playing along in order to get you to drop you mental guard. The old samurai saying of “when the battle is over, tighten your helmet straps” applies here. Keep your awareness up and be ready to go physical at any moment: even if it appears as if things are being de-escalated. It could be a ploy.

Finally, don’t try to de-escalate when the situation has progressed beyond that point. At that point you should pre-empt and flee. You’ll know when it has gone beyond the verbal by what the person does; not so much by what they say. The person who is walking away issuing threats is much less of an immediate danger than the guy who appears to have calmed down, but who is not backing off. If that person should try to close space then it would be a good idea to “stun and run”.

I think we have touched upon the main points I wanted to address in this article. Before we start to wrap things up, I’d just like to draw attention to what should be the obvious fact that all skills need to be practised if they are to be useable. Just as the physical side of what we do needs to be honed and refined through training and practise, the non-physical skills, such as verbal de-escalation, also need to be practised.

Those interested in teaching and practising realistic self-protection should ensure that realistic role-play, where things may or may not get physical, is included in what they do. In many martial arts schools / self-protection training the mistake is made of all scenarios ending up being physical. This reinforces the notion that physical technique is always the solution to all situations and that is obviously not the case. Our training needs to include verbal de-escalation as the useful and effective methodology it can be.

If we can avoid the physical through verbal de-escalation then obviously we should do so. However, if we don’t have that skill set then we will needlessly put ourselves at risk as situations that could have been avoided will escalate to the physical. There are times to walk, times to talk, times to fight and times to flee. Don’t mix them up or believe that one solution is right for all situations.

As I said at the start of this article, verbal de-escalation is a huge subject and it’s impossible to do it justice in an article like this. There is much left untouched, but I nevertheless hope you’ve found this article interesting and it has encouraged those new to the subject to seek out further information on it. There is lots of really good stuff out there and some very knowledgeable people. Those interested in teaching and practising true self-protection should be seeking that information out and not limiting themselves to the purely physical or believing martial arts / fighting to be one and the same as self-protection. You can be a skilled martial artist and a good fighter without possessing verbal skills. For self-protection verbal de-escalation skills are vital though and I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at some of the key issues surrounding them.

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