The art of de-escalation

Diffusing a difficult conversation is a skill we all need.
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By Kyle Fawkes
Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response (London)

Imagine, you are sitting at your desk on a typical Monday morning, when suddenly the phone rings. Immediately after answering, the caller launches into an angry tirade. Listening intently, you gather the caller is the captain of a small fishing boat, which suffered a distressing incident the night before. He goes on to state that two of his crewmembers fell overboard and claims your vessel’s wake was the cause. While the crewmembers are accounted for, the owner is adamant that your company’s operations endangered the lives of him and his crew. He wants answers, he wants something to be done, and he wants it dealt with now. Caught off-guard and fumbling for words, you don’t know how to begin responding.

The first step in resolving any antagonistic confrontation – whether it be from a client, an employee, or an external stakeholder – is de-escalating the emotional tension. It is difficult to address the root cause of an issue when people are agitated.

As any customer service representative will know, calming emotions is no easy task. The challenge is heightened during a crisis, where attention spans are short, emotions are volatile, and the risk of further infuriating people is often greater than the reward for quelling concerns. If done well, however, de-escalation can be a vital part of crisis response.

De-escalation relies on compassion, pragmatism, and timeliness. The caller needs to feel like they have been heard while their concern is dealt with in an efficient manner. Striking a balance between these objectives takes a certain aesthetic. How a call is specifically commanded will depend on the nature of the complaint, the personality types involved, and the urgency of the issue at hand.

While responses can’t always be scripted, there are some general guidelines for smooth de-escalation:


  • Listen, listen, listen: Let the caller have some leash. Venting allows them to feel validated and is an essential step in building trust. Giving the caller space to explain also provides you with an opportunity to understand their concerns and begin formulating your response.


  • Keep calm: Maintaining a cool head is one of the most difficult aspects of de-escalating a confrontation. It is easy to succumb to the caller’s emotional spiral and feel defensive or personally hurt, but keeping calm will allow you to focus on what really matters: rationally addressing the source of the problem.


  • Be efficient in your communications and pick your times to interrupt. If the issue merits an urgent response, you may need to be a more abrupt in how you handle the call.


  • Maintain your confidence: Don’t let the caller dictate the conversation by intimidating you. Be courteous and sympathetic but also assertive. Remember, you will need to end the call in control if you want to actually resolve the matter.


  • Find a point of agreement: It is more difficult for a caller to act aggressively if you share a common perspective with them. Reaching out to the caller and including remarks such as “I agree, that would be very difficult” or “I can appreciate that wasn’t easy” can help you to bridge divisiveness early.


  • Choose your vocabulary carefully: Certain words and phrases will elicit very strong responses from some people. Through careful planning, consultation, and experience, these terms can be identified and eliminated from your crisis response vocabulary.


  • Talk about the future: State what can you do for the caller or propose some initial steps to resolving the matter or even just re-affirm your commitment to helping them. Showing that you want to be proactive in assisting the caller will build their confidence in you.


  • Get a second opinion: In many situations, you will be unsure how to handle a caller and it may be worth consulting a member of your team before responding. Make sure this is done in a timely fashion as no irate individual likes to wait around.


  • Practice, practice, practice: prepare some different approaches to handling disgruntled callers and practice your de-escalation skills in simulations with your colleagues.


It is important to remember that not all fiery calls can be extinguished right away. If the caller is verbally abusive for an extended period of time, consider politely ending the call. You could pre-empt this by informing the caller that abusive language will not be tolerated. Alternatively, you could kindly explain that you would be happy to reconvene when they are ready to talk in a more cordial way.

The important thing to remember is that de-escalation is a process. Each situation is different and no one approach will completely disarm all affronts. Planning, preparation, and practice are a good starting point, but they will need to be followed up with active listening, quick thinking, and creativity. You won’t create a masterpiece, but you may avoid a disaster.

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