5 Strategies for Meaningful De-Escalation

Published On: 30 June 2022

The Health and Safety Executive reports there were 389,000 reported threats of violence at work in 2019/2020. We have all been in circumstances at work, and elsewhere, where we have needed to de-escalate a situation to prevent it from becoming more risky or serious; to “calm things down”.

But what did we do and how did we do it? And are there opportunities to improve what we already do to further build our confidence? These five strategies can help you make de-escalation more meaningful in your setting.

1: Get the right balance between reactive and positive strategies

Lots of training devotes more time and energy to the reactive strategies and restrictive practices during a training course for reducing conflict and managing violence and aggression. Often because this is the most contentious part of a training event, and it needs to be safe and well-rehearsed.

Conversely, the likelihood of needing to use a restrictive practice is dramatically reduced if we spend more time on the positive behaviour strategies. We become more confident and competent in how to de-escalate a situation with many tools in our kit to use.

Training needs to look at the specifics of de-escalation and develop our understanding, so we return to the workplace feeling strong, competent, and able to manage situations where there is potential conflict. It lets us have a positive impact on the workforce and the people we support, which builds a strong, resilient, and trusting team atmosphere.

2: Effective de-escalation strategies take practise

Consider how much time we have invested into practising the delivery of any chosen de-escalation strategy. Remember the words of Greek poet Archilochus, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.”

For example, think about how we communicate. It helps if we use fewer words, positive and clear directions, and a calm and confident tone. Using slow movements with gestures and relaxed posture all helps. But do we practise this during training, so repetitively that it becomes part of muscle memory, like we would with physical interventions?

Do we practise using a verbal script so much in training that when we’re in a real situation we can instantly recall it? If so, we are more likely to reduce a risky situation with proactive strategies rather than physical interventions. Remember, we want to be responding rather than reacting as situations change.

Are the practices in training meaningful to specific situations or are they generic and ambiguous under the guise of being able to use them in all situations? We often know that a situation is likely to occur at some point. We can prepare for them by using these scenarios to practise proactive strategies and achieve the knowledge and skills that we can use with confidence and deep trust.

3: Describe effective de-escalation

So, what are effective de-escalation strategies? We say that we used verbal and non-verbal strategies, but what exactly worked and didn’t work?

When we report an incident, we write in the notes that we used de-escalation, either effectively or not, and then continue to describe what happened next. But do we describe the effective or non-effective ways of de-escalation that we used? This is useful and meaningful for understanding what works for different individuals in different situations.

For de-escalation strategies to be successful, as staff, families and carers, we need to understand what the strategies are and how they work. We should know how to adapt them to different situations and scenarios and to practise them to gain confidence and competence. More importantly, we need to have practiced switching seamlessly between strategies as the situation changes.

The more specific a strategy is, the more it is understood and can be used and then adapted to the need. Vagueness leads to misunderstanding, feeling unsure of what does or doesn’t work, which then leads to anxiety and panic. This, in turn, is more likely to result in a restrictive practice being used.

4: Practise active listening and redirecting

Team Teach training uses active listening to respond with appropriate and effective communication and help scripts. To acknowledge an individual’s feelings is essential in making someone feel listened to and important.

Successfully redirecting someone into an alternative meaningful activity is very different to just ‘distracting and diverting’ from one place to another. Just diverting can show that the person is not being listened to, which could then escalate a situation further. By understanding an individual’s needs, we have an insight in to what might work for that person, in the process of supporting them into an alternative action.

5: Use a training needs analysis

Training Needs Analyses are the ideal opportunity to gain insights into situations where we, as staff and carers, feel unsure and at risk. We need to replace those feelings with confidence and competence through continued training.

We can move from being able to identify specific behaviours and understanding the functions for those behaviours, to feeling able to successfully de-escalate and manage situations. It’s a positive journey for staff, families, carers, and the individuals we support.

In summary

Meaningful de-escalation takes practise and needs to be specific to an individual rather than relying on general strategies that may not be effective. Recording these strategies in our notes helps us to capture exactly what works.

It takes practise to build “muscle memory” so these strategies become a natural part of what we do without needing to think about them. Using active listening ensures the distressed individual is really listened to and successfully redirected rather than just distracted away.

Feeling confident with de-escalating situations takes time and practise. Using a training needs analysis is a simple way to spot where we feel in need of support and find opportunities to further develop our skills.