Talk Them Down

TALK THEM DOWN - Implementing de-escalation strategies like a pro.

Security and de-escalation are often intertwined. Learn how security professionals implement best-in-class de-escalation strategies.

Security often comes down to a matter of de-escalation – talking an individual down before agitation evolves into violence. At North Olympic Healthcare Network in Port Angeles, Wash., Security Supervisor Ted Bowen sees it every day.

“We had a patient come in very upset, pacing the lobby. They eventually started saying that they were going to break our windows, so naturally someone called security,” he says. So Bowen started walking with the patient and that walking-and-talking quickly eased the tension. “Obviously I was keeping my safe distance and always being aware, but just by going a couple of laps around our property, we were able to get that de-escalated.”

De-escalation is a key front-line security strategy in a range of situations, from hospitals to retail settings to office environments. Many sectors, such as travel and airlines, healthcare facilities, retail and more, have seen an increase in agitated behavior or violent incidents in recent years, some spawned from tensions rising regarding mask mandates and COVID-19 protocols.

“In a lot of cases, security directors place an emphasis on law enforcement,” says Matthew Doherty, a threat and violence risk management expert with Jensen Hughes. “But there are situations – either with patients, or with things like performance improvement plans, suspensions or terminations – where you need a different approach.”

What is that “different approach,” and how does it work?

Minimizing Risk

The point of de-escalation is to minimize risk – to turn down the heat before a situation can boil over.

“Security folks deal with people who are upset, people who are stressed, people who are angry, people who are intoxicated, and even people who are violent. If you don’t de-escalate, the potential for violence increases,” says David Fowler, Founder and President of Personal Safety Training, Inc. and the AVADE workplace violence program.

Particularly in the healthcare sector, security leaders must implement de-escalation as part of their daily practice and training.

“Sometimes the patients we see have some behavioral health issues, chronic pain or chemical dependency issues, which can create a difficult situation for us. Maybe they don’t want to cooperate, or they don’t feel that they are getting the attention that they need, which causes them to escalate,” says Eric Sean Clay, Vice President of Security Services for Memorial Hermann Health System, and one of Security’s 2020 Most Influential.

“We know that 75% of all violence that occurs in any workplace occurs in a healthcare environment,” says Brian Uridge, Director of security at Michigan Medicine, a healthcare complex at the University of Michigan. “For us, de-escalation happens multiple times a day.”

The Basics

When hospital security professionals look to calm the anxious or agitated, they start with strong communication. De-escalation is fundamentally an interpersonal skill: It’s all about finding common ground with the person in distress.

“You need to listen to the person, find out the reasons why they’re so upset, or at least give them some empathy and respect. You’re not condoning the disruptive behavior, but you do have to have some empathy, some listening skills,” Doherty says.

The fundamental idea is that people who upset typically have an underlying reason for their actions.

“A lot of the times when people are escalating, they have some unmet need. They had an adverse staff interaction, maybe the person up front wasn’t giving them the right answers or they weren’t getting what they need,” Bowen says. “I train my staff to never stop talking. We always keep our verbals going. Even in a situation where they have weapons, we keep talking to the person, letting them know we’re there. The whole time we’re moving closer and closer, because sometimes you just have to take control. But at the same, we never stop talking. And it’s hard: It’s really hard to keep that caring tone in those moments.”

This approach may not come naturally to those trained to take a more authority-driven approach.

“Security professionals often want to just go in and take charge of a situation, relying upon their authority,” Clay says. “When we de-escalate, on the other hand, we’re actively listening to what that person is saying. We’re watching for those verbal cues that may indicate what they’re thinking. Sometimes we just allow them to vent. It helps them feel validated, that somebody is actually listening to what they have to say.”

Building Relationships

Uridge likens de-escalation to the law enforcement practice of community policing.

“My background is in law enforcement, at Kalamazoo public safety. We started a program there where every single day we asked our officers to go out and just do 20 minutes of foot patrol, not as an investigation, just simply 20 minutes of foot patrol,” he says. “De-escalation starts with proactively building those relationships, before you ever need to be there for an incident.”

The same approach works, for example, in a hospital setting, he says. “We treat the health system as a community: Every floor is a neighborhood, and every neighborhood has different issues. To deal with the issues of the neighborhood, you have to build trust.”

To build trust, Uridge asks security staff to make the rounds, introducing themselves to patients and staff in advance of any incidents. “We want to build a relationship, to reduce anxiety and build trust. That means we have to proactively go out and engage people,” he says.

In any sector, whether retail, transportation or corporate settings, security staff can make personal connections and broker a level of familiarity as part of their routine duties. Then, when an incident does arise, there is already a basis of goodwill in place, which in turn makes it easier to de-escalate.

Printed in the August 2021 issue of Security.

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