By Joseph “Paul” Manley, Lieutenant, Nahant Police Department
Whether you work in law enforcement, security, the fire service, EMS, healthcare, human services, business, or any field, you have likely come across angry, hostile or non-compliant behavior. Your response to defensive behavior is often the key to avoiding a physical confrontation with someone who has lost control of their behavior.
A person during a crisis – and in the heat of the moment – cannot always communicate their thoughts, feelings or emotions clearly. They may find it difficult to understand what others are saying. Therefore, it is important to empathize with the person’s feelings, stay calm and try to de-escalate the situation.
- Situational assessment: An individual’s behavior during crisis is unpredictable and can change dramatically without warning. Therefore, it is important to quickly scan the immediate area, look for exits, bystanders and dangerous objects – even a pencil can be lethal – to assess immediate risks and help you decide on the most suitable approach. Ask yourself these questions.
--Are there any objects nearby that can harm me or cause self-inflicted harm?
--Do I need emergency assistance? Or do I have time to start with a phone call for guidance and support?
--Do I need additional resources to handle the problem?
--Is the person in danger of hurting themselves, others or property?
When encountering an individual in crisis the most important thing is safety. And when in doubt, get out.
- Actively listen: Clarifying, paraphrasing and open-ended questions all help to ensure that the person is aware you understand their frustrations. This helps to lower frustration levels as they feel they have gotten their concerns off their chest.
- Remain empathetic: When someone says or does something you perceive as weird, unusual or irrational, do not judge or discount their feelings. Whether you think those feelings are justified, they’re real to the individual in crisis. Pay attention to what they are doing and saying. Keep in mind that whatever the person is going through, it is likely the most important thing in their life at that particular moment.
- Physical distance: Maintain a safe distance. Personal space varies among individuals during crisis, but if possible stand one to three feet away from a person who is escalating. Allowing personal space may help decrease the individual’s anxiety and may prevent unpredictable behavior. If you must enter someone’s personal space to provide care, explain your actions first so the individual feels less confused and frightened.
- Non-verbal communication: It is possible that the individual in crisis will downward spiral and begin to lose control. At this stage, they are more likely to react to your non-verbal communication and cannot hear your words or commands. Be mindful of your gestures, facial expressions, movements and tone of voice. Keeping your tone and body language neutral will go a long way toward defusing a situation.
- Clearly establish limits: If the individual’s behavior is belligerent, defensive or disruptive, give them clear, simple and enforceable limits. Offer concise and respectful choices and consequences. An individual who is upset may not be able to focus on everything you say. Be clear, speak confidently and slowly and offer the positive choice first.
- Do not rush: When an individual during crisis is upset, they may not be able to think clearly. Give them a few moments to think through what you’ve said. Stress rises when they feel rushed. Allowing time brings calm.
- Post-incident debriefing: Immediately following an incident, the physical, emotional and psychological needs of all involved participants should be attended to in a supportive safe environment, particularly if any were victims of aggression or violence. There must be a dedicated and timely review to examine the responses to the incident. The review process must be undertaken in the spirit of open inquiry with the aim of improving future responses rather than an attempt to assign blame.
Following the review, the action plan should be updated accordingly, and all staff should be made aware of any alterations to the planned response to challenging situations.
Advocating and caring for someone experiencing a crisis can be extremely stressful. Have a plan in place, know the best techniques to de-escalate the situation and know where to turn when you need help.
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About the Author
Lt. Manley is a 30+ year law enforcement professional and adjunct faculty member at North Shore Community College in Danvers, MA. Paul is the Founder of Risk Mitigation Technologies, LLC and currently serves as the Executive Officer for the Nahant Massachusetts Police Department. Paul has a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Anna Maria College, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice from American International College. Paul is proud and honored to serve the IPSA Multi-Discipline Mentoring Program and Memorial Committee.