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The Use of Force Spectrum: Verbal De-Escalation

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In a use of force setting, there may be time to deescalate an encounter before it comes to a physical threat. People are actually rather adept at verbal deescalation without truly knowing it. We have an innate fear against making others mad, and most caring individuals will try to make a situation better if they feel they have wronged someone. In the case of verbal deescalation, the contact is assumed to be nonfriendly. Through verbal technique, the key is to keep him from going from nonfriendly to hostile until help can arrive or the situation can be diffused in other ways. Very good proficiency with verbal deescalation skills can move a nonfriendly contact to a neutral or even friendly demeanor. There are a few pre-deescalation concerns, and a few techniques to accomplish this. In general, when faced with conflict, people can fight, flee, freeze, posture, or submit. For verbal deescalation, posturing and submitting are the most applicable.

Self awareness

Self awareness, as describe in this article, remains the single biggest factor in verbal deescalation capability. Controlling one’s own self and remaining emotionally balanced and stable is key. When an angry person is yelling, it is very easy to fire back with one’s own anger. It must be avoided. To do that, a clear understanding of the objective is required:

The objective of the confrontation is not to win the argument, it is to prevail in the encounter.

If someone is unfriendly or hostile, it is very easy to get caught up in the scenario and vie for who is right, and to win the argument. If this has been identified as a potentially dangerous encounter and the nonfriendly contact is potentially capable of harm, it matters little who wins the argument, but that the protector prevails by remaining unharmed. Never losing focus of the true objective will help ensure it is achieved.

Posturing

Today’s media is rife with posturing. There are plenty of scenes out there where two people face off in very close proximity, each demonstrating their resolve. This is posturing, i.e., the act of demonstrating an unwillingness to surrender or run, and is backed by the promise (whether real or bluffing) of physical violence.

Posturing can work as a verbal deescalation, though it is in fact an escalation, but the net effect is the same: using communication methods to preclude a physical confrontation. In posturing, a protector demonstrates his resolve to stand his ground, not back down, and willingness to take the encounter to physical force and beyond. The opponent is then given the message this will not be an easy victory, and he will likely have to fight or capitulate. Posturing works best when the opponent has no interest in escalating further, if the ultimatum is weak (give me your wallet or else; with no ‘or else’ evident), or if the opponent cannot escalate further (such as in a very crowded area where undue attention will get him spotted and captured).

Submitting

While the statement sound like submission is synonymous with surrender, it is not an equivalent. Remember, the goals between protector and opponent can be very different.The opponent is trying to ‘win the argument’ while the protector is trying to ‘prevent harm’. It is entirely possible to appear to be submitting to an attacker when the protector’s end goal is actually being achieved. In fact, because there are two sets of ‘terms of victory’ at play, it is entirely possible that the situation can end in a win-win.

What appears to be capitulation is actually a directed effort to move the situation to a less hostile one. The aggressor perceives he is getting his way, that the protector is acknowledging the error of his ways, and that the situation is fixing itself. Further force or escalated hostility is not required because there is perceived momentum that the situation is becoming remedied.

Scenario 1:

You park your car in the Wallyworld parking lot. A man walks up to you and starts yelling about your driving.

“You cut me off back there! Don’t you know how to drive?!”, he exclaims, face red with anger.

“Screw you! Get the hell out of here!”, you reply, taking the man’s anger and turning it back to him.

It is easy to see how this reply could easily further enrage the contact, resulting in yet another verbal engagement that could easily turn physical, or worse. The protector is absorbing the attacker’s negative energy and directing back at him.

Scenario 2:

You park your car in the Wallyworld parking lot. A man walks up to you and starts yelling about your driving.

“You cut me off back there! Don’t you know how to drive?!”, he exclaims, face red with anger.

“Oh man, I did? I’m really sorry. I must not have seen you and I’ll do better next time”, you reply in a genuinely worded way.

“Well, you did, and I’m really pissed!”, he counters, not expecting the reply.

“I see that now, and like I said, I’m sorry and I’ll do better next time. Thanks for the heads up.”, you reply.

The contact here may continue to yell a little bit, but at the very least he is still talking and not fighting. With repeated deescalating statement where you let the negative energy from these statements pass rather than absorb them by taking them personally and then ‘striking back’ verbally, the contact is more likely to see there is not a fight to be had and the heat of anger ebbs.

A very good story about verbal de-escalation comes from Aikido practitioner Terry Dobson. In the story, he was on a train in Japan itching to test his skills when a belligerent drunk happens aboard. An old man intervening between the two uses verbal deescalation to prevent the fight, and save both sides from harm. That story is available here:

http://www.wanttoknow.info/inspiration/aikido_surprise

Time can be your friend

In the Scenario 2 above, it is easy to see how keeping the status quo in the encounter is a benefit. The situation was limited to talking, which allowed the contact time to emotionally cool off. Simultaneously, there may be other people approaching to act as witnesses at the yelling spectacle, and these people can see that the protector has done all in his power to deescalate by repeated apologies and the like. As long as the extra time doesn’t buy the opponent additional advantage, it pays to maintain status quo or deescalate.

Time can be your enemy

Remember that these same verbal engagements can be used as pretenses for the opponent. Keeping the protector off balance and merely talking may allow the opponent’s friends to arrive, allow a better position to make a premeditated attack, or even allow the area to clear of witnesses before the intended attack occurs. The same effects and asymmetric goals used in verbal deescalation can be used offensively. Situational awareness is an important aspect here to be able to ascertain the surroundings and sense the contact’s motives in the engagement.

The line in the sand

While engaged in a verbal deescalation, the threat of physical force may still loom. It is very important to envision a ‘game on’ line where the situation will go physical. If the opponent is not backing down, has threatened you physically, has drawn a weapon but still issuing insults and threats, or is acting in a way that appears the de-escalation is not working, the protector must ensure he understands his ‘line in the sand’ where he will act on the threats. Because de-escalation may make the situation escalate more slowly than it normally would have, it can become hard to ascertain when there has been enough build of up threat to actually act against potential harm.

Training

There are a few training opportunities available to learn more about verbal deescalation. These mostly involve corporate style conflict resolution courses and the like, but the lessons learned for work can easily apply to the use of force model. Understanding that prevention and elimination of the need for force is the most sure way of success, taking training in this type of engagement style is easily justified for the average person. A verbal altercation is far more likely than a lethal encounter for most people.

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