Bringing Down The Heat: De-Escalation and Safety

Irene MartinkoBlog, Featured

If you’ve ever worked in customer service before, then you definitely know what it’s like to face a challenging customer. Maybe someone’s order isn’t exactly how they’d like it. Or perhaps, they’re frustrated by the time it’s taking for them to be served. These days, it may even be someone who is upset that they have to wear a mask indoors. 

But what happens when a situation like this escalates? How do you know what to do if someone gets so angry that you start to feel unsafe or concerned for the safety of those around you? 

I had these same questions running through my head when I agreed to participate in a de-escalation training workshop taught by IMPACT Boston instructors Adriana Li and Michael Perry, and organized by Perseverance Theatre. How am I, a young woman with an almost comical lack of physical strength, supposed to handle a situation that goes too far?

So when the day came, I opened up my laptop, found a quiet space to focus, and got ready to listen.

Tuning in to the workshop Zoom meeting, it was exciting to see that in addition to my own, 57 other devices had also tuned in to receive this de-escalation training. With Arts and Culture leaders, staff, board members, volunteers, and even family members from organizations in Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks, nearly 70 people gathered together to learn. The goal was to garner tools and skills to support community well-being and everyone’s safe re-opening.

But what exactly did we learn? 

To begin, Adriana and Michael from IMPACT Boston, an organization dedicated to teaching self-defense, assertive communication, and de-escalation skills, shared with us a simple message. We were told that the goal should always be to stop escalation before it can even become a fight. When it comes down to it, de-escalation is all about preventing violence before it actually occurs.

We began our training by learning about adrenaline. Have you ever heard an unexpected loud noise that startled you so much that you began to feel that familiar fight or flight response? Your heart rate increased, your breathing became rapid, and time may have even felt like it slowed down or sped up? That’s your adrenaline kicking in. And though in some situations, it may be what keeps you alive, it can also make it really hard to respond to a conflict in a way that is calm and effective.

Adriana and Michael taught us different ways to recognize that feeling of adrenaline in ourselves and how to spot warning signs of that same reaction in others. We were given exercises to manage our own adrenaline and to ground ourselves if we start to feel that fight or flight taking over. I found myself learning skills that would not only be helpful in a de-escalation situation, but also in any stressful scenario in which I might need to keep a clear head.

In fact, Michael even shared with us that we have been living with an unprecedented level of stress in our bodies since the beginning of the pandemic. We have experienced what feels like a constant state of uncertainty, change, and ongoing worry. He and Adriana emphasized that investing time in breathing, grounding ourselves, and practicing stress-relieving techniques has never been more important. 

We then moved into examples of escalated situations in order to learn how to navigate them. We were taught about the words we use, our body language, our tone of voice, and even the way that we stand. All of these things send a message to the people we interact with. In learning how to present ourselves, we are able to have some measure of control in a situation that could potentially become dangerous. 

But what I found most engaging about the workshop was the last section, when Adriana and Michael shared role-playing scenarios with us, demonstrating the very techniques we had just discussed. 

They started by presenting a lower stress scenario, the set-up being a theatre employee welcoming a patron into the space and reminding them that masks are required indoors. The patron is unhappy about said requirement, and thus the escalation, and subsequent de-escalation, ensues.

We watched as they acted out increasingly more intense versions of this scenario, and then we came together to discuss what we had just seen. Some students were even able to practice their own de-escalation skills by taking over the role of theatre employee in the scenario, acting out the situation and using their newfound knowledge to confidently manage the conflict. 

But why is this training important? Sure, it may help us now and again, but where else in our lives can it be used? 

I, for one, left this workshop feeling much more confident about my own ability to de-escalate and about staying calm and collected in stressful situations. As someone who has worked both as a house manager and in a box office, I am of the mindset that this kind of training should be given to anyone in a customer service position. This kind of knowledge can only provide an additional level of safety and security to both employees and patrons in essentially any workplace setting.

But beyond that, de-escalation training is a step that we can take to learn how to protect both ourselves and others in our community in our everyday lives.

Say you’re walking down the street, and you witness a conflict that has the potential to escalate. Perhaps you see someone approach another with comments of racism, sexism, or homophobia. Groups that face elevated levels of discrimination in this country are of course more likely to see this kind of violence. De-escalation training gives us the skills to feel as if we can move from bystander, simply watching the events unfold, to upstander, the kind of person who feels as though they can de-escalate the situation and stand up for their fellow community members.

It reminds me of the TV show “What Would You Do?”, a program on ABC in which actors play out scenarios in public spaces to see if anyone will step forward to intervene. They create fabricated scenarios such as a customer making anti-Muslim comments to a Muslim cashier, or a restaurant refusing to serve a gay couple, and then they see what the real-life public will do. The hidden cameras always capture people who intervene and others who silently watch the situations unfold. When we open ourselves up to learn more about de-escalation tactics, we can become the kind of people who are able to intervene.

I hope that we at Perseverance continue to do this kind of training and work. Attending one workshop was beyond valuable, but I feel as though we have more learning to do, and I can personally say that I’m excited to do it. I also can’t even begin to say how comforting it is to see so many organizations in Alaska who are enthusiastic to learn along with us. Together, we can continue to learn these skills and keep our communities safe.