Verbal Intervention: 7 Effective Strategies

March 16, 2020
Two women discussing issues in an office

Effective verbal intervention skills are the key to preventing situations from spinning out of control.

No matter which industry you work in, if you deal with challenging behavior, you likely know that good verbal intervention skills can help you respond in the safest, most effective way possible. In fact, when things do begin to escalate, knowing how to defuse challenging behaviors is essential to avoiding physical confrontations. 

We consulted with our Certified Instructors to find out what de-escalation strategies they found most effective. The seven techniques have shown to be incredibly effective in reducing the anxiety and defensiveness that often precedes greater conflict. 

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:
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.

Happy man vs angry man

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 individual 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.

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 the 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.

CPI’s Verbal Intervention™ (VI) training can help you take safety and well-being to the next level.

Ideal for organizations that have a hands-off policy, and for staff members who don’t experience the kind of higher risk situations that require physical interventions, VI trains staff to respond to crisis situations by focusing on de-escalation techniques and safe, non-restrictive interventions.

Learn more about CPI Verbal Intervention™(VI) training today!

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