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Verbal Intervention: 7 Effective Strategies

Do you need effective verbal intervention skills to prevent situations from spinning out of control?

No matter what field you work in... if you deal with disruptive, angry, or challenging behavior, you likely know that good verbal intervention skills can help you respond to that behavior in the safest, most productive way possible.

In fact, your response to difficult behavior is often the key to defusing it. Not only that, your response can be crucial to avoiding physical confrontations when someone loses control of their behavior.

Work in healthcare? Find out about CPI Verbal Intervention™ Training.

The best way to handle escalating situations is to use good verbal intervention strategies, and to have the confidence to use them skillfully in the midst of chaos. These seven techniques will help you reduce the anxiety and defensiveness that often precedes greater conflict — so you can prevent disruptive behavior from accelerating.

1. Remain calm

This might sound easier said than done, especially when someone is screaming, swearing, making threats, or using abusive language. But keep in mind that when someone is verbally escalating, they’re starting to lose control. If they sense that you’re losing control too, the situation is likely to get worse. To prevent that, try to stay calm, even when the person challenges, insults, or threatens you.

One of the most empowering things about crisis prevention is this: While you can’t control someone else’s behavior, you CAN control your own response to that behavior. Your composed, rational response can go a long way toward influencing the person's attitudes and actions in a positive way.

2. Remove the audience

Onlookers often fuel the fire of a situation. Oftentimes, they can become cheerleaders, encouraging the person’s behavior. And even if they don’t, someone who’s escalating is less likely to back down when they have an audience. Try to take the person aside, lead them toward another area, or ask a colleague to lead bystanders away. Your approach will be much more effective one-on-one than in a group setting.

3. Watch your body language

When someone’s agitated, they’ll instinctively pay less attention to what you say and more attention to HOW you say it — and that includes your body language. Be aware of your posture and gestures, and be sure to give the person you’re intervening with enough personal space.

For nearly all of us in tense situations, our anxiety rises when our personal space is invaded. This heightened anxiety makes it more likely that a person will act out in a more serious way. To avoid that, maintain at least an arm's-length distance, and you’ll be less likely to increase the person’s anxiety — and more likely to reduce it. Make sure that your nonverbal behavior is as respectful and nonthreatening as your spoken words.

4. Keep it simple

Be clear, direct, and respectful with what you say. Because an escalating person is usually too preoccupied to hear many words, complex messages will only increase their anxiety and make their behavior more difficult to de-escalate. Avoid jargon and complicated choices.

Want to offer realistic choices and set effective limits? Grab this free resource that's packed with tips.

5. Use reflective questioning

Restate what you think the person is saying and ask them if you’re understanding what they mean. This will help them clarify their message. It will also help you figure out how to help them get their needs met in a safe, productive way. Try to listen for the real message — the feelings behind the facts. Also know that by repeating or reflecting the person’s words in the form of a question, you’ll help them gain valuable insight.

Want to solve problems at their roots? Find out what 5 things “difficult” people are REALLY saying.

6. Use silence

Ironically, allowing for silence is one of the most effective verbal intervention techniques. Silence on your part allows the person to restate and clarify their viewpoint. This can lead you to a clearer understanding of the true source of their conflict.

7. Watch your paraverbals

Two identical statements can have opposite meanings — depending on the tone, volume, and cadence of your voice. Make sure your vocal inflection is consistent with the words you use. This will help you avoid sending the person a double message.

For example, saying “Come with me” can sound reassuring to someone who’s upset — or it can sound threatening. Controlling how you say things is one of the most crucial things you can do to prevent a situation from escalating.

Practice, practice, practice!

Your confident, skilled response plays a critical role in whether a situation gets better or worse. While you can't control everything in a situation with someone who's agitated, when you know these strategies, you're much more likely to influence behavior in a positive way. 

Share these tips with your team, and practice these skills in role-plays so everyone can increase their likelihood of de-escalating behaviors before they can become dangerous.
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Take your prevention skills to the next level with verbal intervention training

Whether you work in healthcare, education, social services, or any field, CPI has the training and resources to help you and your colleagues safely manage challenging behavior.

If you work in healthcare...

Need to give staff skills for recognizing and verbally de-escalating potential crisis situations? CPI Verbal Intervention™ Training is designed for staff who face medium-risk situations in your setting. This program concentrates on verbal skills and safety strategies (including disengagement techniques if needed) to stop potential crisis situations from developing. Combining both online and in-person training, it’s key to helping everyone in your facility stay safe so staff can focus on delivering the highest quality care.


If you work in education...

Need to give teachers skills for handling student behaviors such as shouting out, disrespect, refusal, and engaging in power struggles? Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training helps teachers feel more confident at managing classroom behavior.

In fact, a study conducted by Sara Jozwik and Christy Borders indicates that the verbal skills teachers learn in training are essential to effective classroom management. After training teachers in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® principles using our verbal de-escalation training materials (such as the video training program below), they concluded:  

“Effective verbal intervention is the pivot point that could turn challenging classroom behavior into compliant behavior, thwarting crises and diminishing disruptions daily. Conversely, ineffective verbal intervention is the direct route to escalated behaviors and more teacher and office referrals.

“Strategies to safely manage challenging behavior can be learned through CPI’s verbal intervention training materials. When teachers are provided with verbal intervention training, confidence levels can increase and a reduction can occur in the number of disruptive behaviors as documented through teacher and office referrals.”

verbal intervention strategies
Photo: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

For professionals in any field...

Need to sharpen your staff’s verbal skills? Our How to Excel at Verbal Intervention II video training program is designed to help you teach your colleagues:
  • How to organize a verbal de-escalation strategy
  • Whether to focus on short-, median-, or long-term goals
  • Three types of limits and which one is usually the most effective
  • How to assess an intervention for immediate danger and focus on safety

If you’re a CPI Certified Instructor, you can log in to your account to order participant seats for this program on Video on Demand. You can use this program with its accompanying workbook for staff refresher training or as a standalone review.

Over to you

I hope you’ve found these tips and resources helpful. And I want to know what verbal de-escalation skills you use for prevention! Please share in the comments to help others. Let's make early interventions the go-to and something all staff are empowered to use.
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