21-23 Aug 2024
ICC, Sydney

Verbal De-escalation: A Security Officer’s Guide to Managing Conflict During COVID-19

Apr 2, 2020

With the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), the world is changing rapidly. Those changes have given rise to uncertainty and lead to a great deal of civil unrest. The 24/7 media cycle, mass loss of employment and general fears for one’s own safety and wellbeing, are driving normally reasonable people to behave in ways that few would have predicted.

Security personnel on the frontline are increasingly finding themselves working in hostile environments, where people are more aggressive and less reasonable than would normally be the case. According to Joe Saunders, security consultant, author, speaker and former security operative, the first rule to dealing with people in this current environment is to put the situation into context.

“Understand that most of the aggression and antisocial behaviour we are seeing is coming about because people are scared and desperate. For the first time in their lives, resources they’ve always had access to are not readily available.”

Expert Advice

Joe’s unique insight and understanding of the current environment stems from his equally unique background. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychological Science and Graduate Certificate in Psychology of Risk. He is also the Research Coordinator – Workplace Violence in Australia with the Australian Security Research Centre and serves as Vice Chair (Australia/NZ) for the Institute of Strategic Risk Management, while also hosting his own Podcast – Managing Violence.

Joe explains “There are ten basic principles that I like to outline for defusing or de-escalating potentially dangerous situations like those we are currently seeing in supermarkets, at quarantine centres and so on.

10 Tips to De-escalation

“The first tip, as I mentioned, is to put the situation in context. Remember that people are scared, desperate and want someone to blame for this whole situation. It’s human nature to identify a cause and focus of our anger. Understanding this process is step two in de-escalating.

“For Security Officers in particular, we need to be very mindful that our behaviour doesn’t make us the enemy. Don’t become the focus of anger.

“Next, we need to project empathy. Understand that you are not necessarily dealing with a criminal, or someone looking to be violent. You are dealing with a person or people who have found themselves in unusual circumstances. Therefore, it is important to project empathy through your tone of voice and body language.

“Tip four, be compassionate. Particularly in these circumstances, we need to avoid barking commands that are often taught to security officers; stern verbal commands like “Stop!” or “Get back!” “Put your hands up. Lay on the ground.” Unless you are trying to take control of an already physical or dangerous situation, issuing stern verbal challenges won’t de-escalate the problem. There is a place for that, but it’s not in de-escalation.

“Being compassionate with our tone is super important.” explains Joe. Talk to them like they are a distressed relative. Body language must also mirror compassion – open, warm and inviting – no crossed arms or defensive posture with clenched fists.

“Tip five, and this is especially important for the guards currently working in a retail environment or quarantine centre, is to clearly explain the reason for your role. Especially with the elderly. The presence of security may have the opposite of the desired effect, which is to calm and reassure people, but instead cause worry.

“Sometimes, just articulating the reason you are there makes all the difference. Take a guard working in the toiletries aisle in a supermarket, imagine the difference in attitude of someone who understands that the guard is there to make sure everyone gets what they need, as opposed to thinking the guard is there to stop someone getting what they want. Always frame your role as a positive, how it benefits the person who’s upset or questioning you.

“Tip six is to similar to tip one – understand that you are not necessarily dealing with bad people. My belief is that 98% of conflicts we deal with arise from good people acting poorly, not bad people with bad intentions. Again, the more we can empathise with those people, and seek to help them, the less conflict we are likely to encounter.

“Tip seven is to create a common operating picture. This is a term that’s often used in crisis management. It’s about getting all different parties together and fully articulating what’s happening on the ground, strategically and tactically, it’s the ability to create a common understanding.

“We can apply this same principal to our interpersonal interactions. Find out what the person’s concern is, really listen, and then restate what a person is telling you. Use a phrase like “Just to make sure that I understand what you’re telling me” and then repeat what you’ve heard. You could also use “Just to make sure I’ve heard you correctly”.

Always put the onus back on you in case of a mistake. Never say, “Just to make sure you’ve explained yourself correctly,”.

Clarify that you’ve understood what they’re saying, then move to the next stage – explain your perspective and why you must enforce a particular rule. It is important you do this factually and without judgement. Through this process we get people to problem solve rather than vent. That’s important.

“Tip eight, never condescend. Never treat someone like they are a child. Even if they’re behaving poorly. This is counter intuitive and will only ever escalate a situation.

“Tip nine – don’t contradict people, is probably the hardest to get right. When we know someone is telling us something that is false or incorrect, it’s natural to correct them. When someone is upset, and you tell them they are wrong, you may be seen as questioning their integrity or intellect. Even if you know beyond doubt that they’re incorrect, explaining that will not facilitate de-escalation.

“Your primary goal is to resolve the situation. This can often involve apologising when you have done nothing wrong. For example, “I am sorry if you were given bad information”.

“Finally, tip 10 is understand what the person is trying to accomplish and do everything possible to facilitate it. In this pandemic, we’re referring more to interpersonal conflict than to predatory crime, which requires a different approach. In the case of interpersonal conflict, there are usually only two things people want.

“Either they want you to solve a problem for them or they want revenge. A security officer will need to define what that is. Most people will usually be quite clear. They might say, “This is ridiculous, I can’t get my toilet paper” or, “I can’t cross through here. I always walk through here. I need to go get my tools off the site”. They’re presenting a problem.

“Those problems are the easiest to solve because once you know what the problem is, you can start to find creative solutions. You might offer to get the tools for them or a different idea that gets them closer to their goal. For example “I don’t have the authority to let you back on site to get your tools, but what I can do is make a phone call for you to the person who does have authority, that can let me know if that’s okay.”

“What we’re doing is getting them a little bit closer so they feel like they haven’t wasted their time, they’ve achieved something. That’s all that matters.

In the end, if a person just needs to vent, then it’s really about just taking that onboard and showing that you care. If they want to take action, then understand the escalation process – whether it’s making a complaint, for example. Making people feel heard is the most important thing.


This Industry Post was written by John Bigelow, Editor-in-Chief at Security Solutions, an Official Partner of the Security Exhibition & Conference.

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