Essential De-escalation Tips for Retail Workers

June 4, 2024
Retail worker de-escalating situation with two customers.

CPI provides retailers with customizable de-escalation training solutions that help create sustainable cultures of safety and well-being. The following blog post provides useful verbal de-escalation tips for all retail employees.

Empathetic Listening as a De‑escalation Strategy

Retail employees often encounter situations that can become tense or potentially dangerous. Although an employee’s first instinct may be to intervene immediately or call security, there may be a safer, more effective way to respond. If the individual in crisis is not posing an immediate threat to themselves or others, it’s important to take a moment to make a quick assessment and listen with empathy.

There are five things to remember when practicing empathetic listening:

  1. Give the person your undivided attention.
  2. Be nonjudgmental.
  3. Focus on the person’s feelings, not just the facts.
  4. Allow for silence.
  5. Use restatement to clarify messages.

Offer Your Undivided Attention

Giving someone your undivided attention helps them feel heard, seen, and valued. Failing to do so can cause a person to feel ignored, and their behavior may escalate as a result.

You have to do more than just say you are listening. You need to listen with your whole body. This means looking directly at the person, making eye contact with them (if it is culturally appropriate to do so), and ensuring your body remains in a neutral, open position—something CPI calls using the Supportive StanceSM.

Be Nonjudgmental

While it is easy to find yourself subconsciously judging a person's words and actions, doing so can cause a situation to escalate even further. Instead, keep your body language and facial features neutral. Listen to what the customer is telling you instead of listening to respond. If they’re sitting down, consider sitting with them so you are on the same level.

Focus on Feelings

We all have Precipitating Factors—internal or external causes of behavior over which we have little or no control. When a retail employee encounters a difficult situation, they rarely know what the person has experienced or what Precipitating Factors are at play.

Another way to help de-escalate a situation is to empathize with the person and connect with them on a human level. You may want to say things like:

  • “How are you doing today?”
  • “Can you tell me more about what that feels like?”
  • “I am sorry to hear that. I’m here to help.”

These phrases, when said in a calm, nonjudgmental way, let someone know you are there to genuinely understand and help them.

Allow for Silence

During a crisis, it can be second nature for employees to want to ensure others that they are doing all they can to handle things quickly and calmly. However, there are benefits to using silence to de-escalate a situation.

Consider offering a person additional silence and time to answer a question. Keep in mind a person in distress may be unable to answer, thinking about what to say, or afraid to respond. By allowing for silence, you can give the person space to process what is being asked and to respond. By being patient, you can help reduce the tension of a situation.

Clarify Messages

When a customer answers a question, an employee might think they understand what the person means. But to avoid any confusion or escalation, it is best to clarify what is being said.

For example, if a customer says, “I’m really frustrated with this product,” an employee might think they know what the customer needs. Instead of assuming, restate the concern and offer a possible solution: “I understand you’re frustrated with this product. Are you looking to return it for a refund, or would you prefer an exchange for a different item?”

Asking clear questions demonstrates interest in understanding how to best support the customer. It also gives them a chance to clarify their needs and receive the ideal level of support.

De-escalation and Violence Prevention Training for Retail

See how this online training from CPI provides all retail staff with the skills to effectively identify and respond to hostile customer interactions.

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Rational Detachment as a De‑escalation Strategy

Listening with empathy and staying in control of your own emotions and behaviors are essential when it comes to supporting a person in need. CPI calls this skill Rational Detachment.

To rationally detach yourself from a situation, you need to:

  • Develop a plan
  • Use a team approach
  • Use positive self-talk
  • Recognize your personal limits
  • Debrief after the event

Develop a Plan

Decisions made before a crisis are more rationally thought out than those made in the moment. CPI’s proactive de-escalation training can provide your staff with the skills to develop a plan and share a common to safely address challenging situations.

Use a Team Approach

It’s often easier to maintain a sense of professionalism in a challenging situation when you have coworkers nearby, especially when those coworkers are also trained in CPI’s de-escalation skills. If you find yourself becoming escalated, a team approach allows you to confidently ask someone to step in while you regain Rational Detachment.

Use Positive Self-Talk

Using positive self-talk and reassuring yourself of your strengths can help you regain composure if you start to feel your own behavior and emotions escalating. This can be as simple as telling yourself, “I have the proper training and I know what to do.”

Recognize Your Personal Limits

Being a professional does not mean you need to excel at everything. We all have limits to what we can do and how our brains respond under stress. Consider your personal limits and have plans in place for how team members can support one another.


CPI encourages all organizations to debrief after an incident occurs. Talking about what happened and discussing what went well and what could be improved not only relieves stress but also boosts staff morale. Debriefing can also help staff proactively de-escalate future challenging situations.

To learn more about how CPI training can help your staff safely and proactively de-escalate situations, schedule a consultation below:

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