Verbal De-Escalation Techniques for a Security Guard

Security The Importance of Hiring Trained Guards

Conflict today is inevitable and can occur in many forms and places. In essence, conflict occurs any time there is a show of strength between two opposing parties or principles. This can be quite common in the security environment and unfortunately, a lot of today’s industry principals do not have a healthy attitude toward conflict and therefore, lack skill and behaviour necessary for de-escalation of conflict.

Conflict occurs when two people do not agree. This disagreement leads to frustration which then grows rapidly into anger and finally, if not treated, can degenerate to aggression and violence and other forms of inappropriate behaviour.

This is not a pre-ordained outcome, however, and the outcome of conflict can vary based on the role each participant plays in the conflict as it unfolds. This is why it is important to understand the principles of nonviolent conflict resolution.

If you are dealing with conflict in a security environment or any other stage, it is important to remember first and foremost that you are in charge of how you react. Your attitude must stay positive while ensuring that you are giving full attention to the conflict. Every time you communicate, either verbally or nonverbally, your attitude is visible and it is important to present a calm, professional, unbiased and positive attitude. The purpose is to mould the other person's behaviour and generate voluntary compliance using a set of verbal techniques.

Aggression stemming from frustration is one of the prime triggers of conflict and in a security environment, this can occur anytime someone wants something they cannot have (entry into the building, one more drink and so on). Breakdowns in communication, absence of adequate communication skills and even drugs or alcohol can all contribute to conflict. Regardless of the contributing factors, the intended goal should remain constant, de-escalate the conflict whilst staying focussed on a compliant outcome.

There are a host of factors involved in identifying, de-escalating and managing conflicts. The tactics one must use when resolving a conflict sometimes need to be processed and implemented within an extremely short time. One of the best and simplest overviews of the process is Col John Boyd’s “The OODA Loop” which was developed during the Korean War.

In brief, the OODA loop stands for “Observe, Orientation, Decision and Action”. A security guard needs to firstly Observe all aspects of the conflict situation (situation awareness) and take into account the entire situation and its contributing components. Secondly, Orientate the information that has been processed about the conflict and compare it to their training, their experiences and their knowledge. Third, Decide on the best course of action (based on matching the first two steps) and lastly put the Action into motion. No matter what that action may be (disengage and call for additional resources, make an approach and so on) there will be a resultant reaction or change in circumstances and then the loop starts again.

It is important to understand that this ‘OODA loop’ can occur in a split second. Security guards, in entertainment environments especially, are potentially dealing with people who are affected by drugs and/or alcohol and they have to make rapid decisions under high stress and volatile situations. This combination of circumstances are all factors in the conflict and need to be taken into account whilst maintaining a calm, professional and logical front. Identical responses can occur in loss prevention situations. Guards may find themselves interviewing people who have previous arrests for shoplifting offences resulting in highly aggressive reactions arising from a fear of arrest and possible incarceration.

Effective verbal de-escalation techniques are a true art. To be able to verbally de-escalate conflicts takes patience, tact and the ability to control one’s own pride and ego. The key aspect of suppressing any security related conflict is to understand it is not personal. In security related conflict, in a majority of cases, people are purely venting at the authority you represent, not at you personally. It is the authority you represent that is not allowing that person entry into a venue or not allowing that person one last drink. Once you understand that the conflict is not personally aimed at you, it becomes much easier to handle conflict with empathy, impartiality and focus. Furthermore, by removing the personal element from the equation, it becomes easier to be mindful of the fact that, “you are in charge of how you react”.

To help guards work towards more effective conflict de-escalation and resolution, a few basic steps have been outlined below which can be followed:

  • Find and use the name of the person with who you are speaking: People respond favourably to their own name. It also makes the conversation more personal and engaging. Ask for the person’s name early on and use it throughout the ensuing conversation.
  • Employ Active Listening: Clarifying, paraphrasing and open-ended questions all help to ensure that the person is aware you have understood their frustrations completely. This helps to lower frustration as they feel they have “got it off their chest”. Repeating a person’s own words back to them clearly shows your comprehension of their points.
  • Slow down and suspend judgement:Empathy needs to be shown during conflict situations. Even if you disagree with the person’s position, expressing an understanding why that person feels a particular way will help resolve the conflict. Ensure the conflict has your undivided attention. Show respect for the other person’s opinions and feelings.
  • Get them to say yes:It is very difficult for someone to stay angry with you if they are agreeing with you. This may sound ridiculous…. How to achieve this? Using questions to clarify and providing brief synopsis of their version during the conversation all help to confirm you have understood their point. When you clarify using a statement like, “So you are frustrated because of XYZ, is that right?”, you are creating a situation where the other person must respond with a “Yes”, and the more often you get the other person to say yes, the quicker the conflict will deescalate. This is an extremely successful and practical technique.
  • Don’t use clichés:The worst of these being “Calm Down”. If you have ever said those words during a verbal conflict, you will realise the normal response is “I AM CALM” at the top of their voice and most likely coupled with animated hand gestures as well.
  • Show empathy:The old saying, “Hot heads and cold hearts never solved anything” is particularly true of conflict resolution. As security industry professionals, we need to show compassion and empathy and give the conflict our full attention. Don’t make rash judgements and work through the process.
  • Consistency in Courtesy:This is a personal favourite. The person you are dealing with at 10 o’clock at night deserves the same level of respect, courtesy and patience as the person you are dealing with at 2pm. They don’t know it is your third argument with someone today or that they are the 19th person refused entry tonight and as such, they deserve the same high level of service and professionalism as the first person you spoke to. Remember that in the security industry, in a lot of cases, we are the first and last impression someone gets of our client’s business (be it retail, licensed premises or corporate host/concierge/ reception roles) and as such, we need to maintain that position of positive brand ambassador and consummate professional.

There are many physical aspects to be mindful of in conflict situations. It is important to always be mindful of the bigger picture of conflict including situational and environmental awareness. I would like to finish by pointing out the importance of maintaining a constant awareness of the signs and triggers of an escalating conflict such as:

  • A person clenching his or her fists or tightening and untightening their jaw.
  • A sudden change in body language or tone used during a conversation.
  • The person starts pacing or fidgeting.
  • A change in type of eye contact (psychological intimidation).
  • The “Rooster Stance” – chest protruding out more and arms more away from the body.

Conflict is part of everyday life and as security guards, verbal de-escalation tools are important skills to possess and as such, need to be fine tuned and practised daily if they are to become part of our natural response to conflicts. Training and ingraining these techniques to the point where they become second nature allows a security guard to focus more on the fluid and dynamic changing aspects of conflict such as the signs and triggers mentioned above. This also enables a security guard to develop a greater awareness of other situational factors. The combination of all these factors will provide the greatest chance of minimising and resolving conflict in the safest and most positive way possible.