These Powerful New De-Escalation Techniques Are All You Need
Introduction to a New De-Escalation Technique
You are here to learn about new de-escalation techniques because what you have been taught by conventional wisdom does not work. You have been to the lectures, the training, and the workshops around de-escalation techniques. You have learned the hard way that most of the advice is outdated and impractical.
What if you could learn de-escalation techniques that work every time? And, calms people down in literally seconds. Read on to learn more.
In this article, we will dive into brain science. It explains why all of the de-escalation techniques you have learned fail to work as advertised.
Here’s the key point: Effective de-escalation techniques must do two things at once. First, they must inhibit the limbic system and specifically the amygdala. Second, they must activate the prefrontal cortex. If these two actions do not occur together, de-escalation is impossible.
Common Problems Requiring a Calm Presence
You are here because you have to deal with anger. You might have an angry child to manage. You might be a teacher with angry, misbehaving students. You might be a business owner or executive dealing with a toxic, mad culture or a co-worker that is in a constant rage.
You might be in law enforcement confronting protesters, domestic disputes, or other everyday escalated situations. You might be in corrections, dealing with angry inmates.
These are common problems requiring a calm presence and practical de-escalation skills.
Causes of Escalation
The first thing to know is that the reasons people become angry are limited. Here is a list of the most common causes of escalation.
- Power struggle.
- Overreaction to threats, posturing, or emotional displays.
- Not feeling heard or listened to.
- Feeling disrespected
- Feeling threatened
Anger has six needs that must be met before it can be quenched. To learn about these six needs of anger, click here. If your de-escalation strategy does not satisfy all of these needs, it will not work.
What Is Going On
Human brains operate pretty much the same way in escalated, angry circumstances. An angry brain, no matter the culture, ethnicity, age, or sex, works the same way. Anger is an intensely emotional experience.
As you know from experience, anger intensifies emotional reactivity. People fly off the handle without much provocation. They may become violent.
Every angry person has lost frontal cortex control. They are unable to self-regulate and are generally unaware. They are in a purely reactive frame of mind.
Angry people also become temporarily alexithymic. Alexithymia is the inability to name your emotions. Most people have weak sell-labeling skills to begin with. When anger arises, the ability to name one’s emotions is lost, which means the prefrontal cortex that controls behaviors and makes choices is shutdown.
The upshot is that angry people suffer from a temporary loss of emotional self-regulation. Most people cannot get themselves quickly under control because they are emotionally incompetent. They have low levels of emotional intelligence. This emotional incompetency is caused by upbringing and culture
The Goal of Effective De-Escalation Is to Re-Boot the Prefrontal Cortex
The Amygdala Hijack
Understanding how to calm an angry person begins with the concept of the amygdala hijack.
The amygdala is a collection of cells near the base of the brain. There are two, one on each side of the brain. The amygdala is considered to be part of the brain’s limbic system. It’s key to how we process strong emotions like fear and pleasure.
When a person feels threatened, the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away.
This response is triggered by emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger. These are the emotions we see with angry, escalated people.
When danger is present, the amygdala wants to automatically activate the fight-or-flight response immediately. However, at the same time, the frontal lobes are processing the information to determine if danger really is present and the most logical answer to it.
When the threat is mild or moderate, the frontal lobes override the amygdala, and people respond in the most rational, appropriate way. However, when the danger is severe, the amygdala acts quickly. It may overpower the frontal lobes, automatically triggering the fight-or-flight response.
Daniel Goleman called this overreaction“amygdala hijack” in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”
It happens when a situation causes the amygdala to hijack control of the prefrontal cortex’s response to stress. The amygdala disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response.
Without the frontal lobes, people cannot think clearly, make rational decisions, or control behaviors. Control has been hijacked by the amygdala.
This is why people are escalated when they are angry. They no longer have rational control over themselves. The only effective de-escalation technique is to help an angry, potentially violent person re-boot the prefrontal cortex so they regain control of themselves.
The Re-Boot Process
The re-boot process must inhibit over-active circuits of the brain. These circuits include the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the polyvagal system in the central nervous system. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex has to be reactivated.
Most people do not have the skills, self-awareness, or knowledge to self-regulate themselves from rage to calm. Similarly, most people who must know how to calm angry people are taught de-escalation techniques that do not inhibit the brain’s emotional circuits
What Does Not Work to Calm Things Down
Active Listening Using “I” Statements Does Not Work
Before we get to what does work, here are de-escalation techniques that you might have been taught that absolutely do not work. If you doubt my words, ask anyone teaching these debunked skills for brain science studies that support them.
Any kind of “I” statement will make things worse. Unfortunately, active listening has been taught for the past 60 years with an “I” statement. A typical example: “So, if I understand you correctly, you are angry.” Or “What I hear is that you are angry.”
When was the last time you tried using this form of active listening as one of your de-escalation techniques, and it actually worked to calm done an enraged person? How did you feel the last time someone tried some of this active listening on you? Most people report that they feel patronized, insulted, and disrespected. What is even more surprising is that most people that teach these ideas know that active listening does not work. Yet they continue to teach it.
Another de-escalation technique that is certain to make things worse is asking questions like, “How do you feel?” or Why are you so angry?” Remember, an angry, upset person has no access to rational thinking. Why ask a question to a person in that state? Have you ever noticed how much more furious people get when you ask them a question? Asking questions frustrates people beyond belief because they are unable to answer. Likewise, trying to reason or rationalize with an angry person is futile.
Becoming Anxious or Defensive
If you become anxious or defensive around an angry, upset person, you will make the situation worse through a process known as emotional contagion. Ever watched how a herd of antelope quietly grazing? One animal looks up and around, then another. In a second, the entire herd is bolting away. Like antelope, we are keenly attuned to the emotions of those around us. This is especially true for angry people because they have a need to be safe. If you are anxious or defensive, you are not safe. You will communicate this to the angry person and escalate the situation.
Obviously, using counter-aggression with an enraged person will only escalate into violence. Counter-aggression is usually unnecessary. People go into counter-aggression when they lose their ability to self-regulate. The fight is on, and the person with the most power will win.
Emotional invalidation occurs when feelings are ignored or diminished. Common phrases include:
“It’s not that big a deal.”
You are making a mountain out of a molehill.”
“Get over it.”
“Everything’s going to be just fine.”
We unconsciously emotionally invalidate angry people as a mechanism for soothing our anxiety. The logic seems to be that if I tell you to stop being emotional, I will feel better. Think back on the last time someone invalidated your feelings. The experience was not pleasant for you.
Typical Advice On De-Escalation Techniques Is Almost Worthless
Here is a list of standard de-escalation techniques that are almost worthless.
- Be Empathic and Nonjudgmental.
- Respect Personal Space.
- Be Non-Threatening
- Avoid Overreacting.
- Focus on Feelings.
- Ignore Challenging Questions.
- Set Limits.
- Choose Wisely What You Insist Upon
These techniques are useless because they tell you what to do, but do not tell you how to do it. For example, the first advice is to “Be empathic and nonjudgmental.”
Great. How exactly are you to be empathic and nonjudgmental if you have not received specific training in those skills? It’s as if the trainers assume that everyone knows how to be empathic and nonjudgmental.
The same criticism applies to the rest of the list. Unless you are taught the “how” of the “what,” the advice is useless in real-life situations.
I say all of this with the experience of over 2,000 high conflict mediations, a graduate degree above my law degree, and 20 plus years of research and experimentation on what works and what doesn’t to calm people down. As a professional peacemaker, I am expected to calm things down fast.
I was trained in all of these de-escalation techniques, and none of them ever worked. I had to come up with something that did wor. In 2004, I did just that, and a few years later, brain scanning studies showed why it worked so well.
I have taught this technique to murderers serving life sentences. I have taught this technique to senior analysts at the Congressional Budget Office so they could de-escalate members of Congress and staff. I have trained teachers, school administrators, university professors, parents and grandparents, judges, lawyers, mediators, and law enforcement.
The Three-Step Process of Effective De-Escalation
Here is the only de-escalation skill that has worked consistently for every person who has mastered it:
Ignore The Words
The first step is to ignore the angry words. It’s just noise and means nothing. When you ignore the words, three things happen. First, you are less likely to be triggered by the insults because you are not paying attention to them. Second, you remain calm because the noise does not make you anxious. Third, you free up bandwidth in your brain to execute the next steps.
Guess At The Emotions
The second step is to guess at the emotions. This is super-simple in angry situations. The emotions are anger, frustration, anxiety, fear, and disrespect. Those emotions cover 95% of all anger.
Reflect The Emotions With A Simple “You” Statement
The third step is to reflect back those emotions to the angry person with a simple “you” statement. “You are angry.” You are frustrated.” You are anxious.” “You are afraid.” “You are disrespected.” Keep your reflections short and straightforward. Keep reflecting until you get a verbal response like “Yeah!: or “Exactly!” Keep reflecting emotions for a few more seconds until you observe the speaker visibly relaxing.
Here’s a YouTube Video of how to use these de-escalation techniques to calm an angry child. The same principles apply to adults.
Why Does This De-Escalation Technique Work
The Lieberman Study
I discovered this skill by happenstance in a mediation in 2004. Three years later, UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman published a paper showing how this works. Using fMRI technology, he and his colleagues had subjects look at evocative, emotional photographs, then choose words that identified their emotional experience. This is what he found:
In translation to lay language, Lieberman found that when emotions were labeled, the emotional centers of the brain were inhibited while the prefrontal cortex was activated. Later science explains why this occurs, which is beyond the scope of this article. To read Lieberman’s study, click here.
Emotional Reflection Allows You
In summary, the only useful de-escalation skill is to reflect back emotions with a simple “you” statement. When you use this strategy, you are able:
- To remain calm and non-reactive
- To maintain a non-anxious presence
- To loan your prefrontal cortex to the escalated person
- To calm anyone in any situation in less than 90 seconds
Are You Ready?
Up until now, you have experienced frustration at your inability to calm angry people. The de-escalation skills in this article work if you are diligent about practicing them. They are counter-intuitive to what we think we know about conflict de-escalation. However, these skills are based on hard neuroscience, not 1950s psychology.
To learn more, check out other articles on de-escalation here.