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Dr. Mayo: De-Escalation

Calm and cool-down communication


by Dr Nicolle Mayo - December 4, 2019

We all experience escalation, though some of us are more prone to fight and others to flight when we hit our emotional climax. Knowing our own fight, flight, and freeze response gives us more control. The more we know about what escalates us, how our body emotionally, physically, and cognitively responds sets us up for successfully getting through those challenging moments. With this awareness, we can then practice strategies to de-escalate ourselves. For some, it’s as easy as deep breathing, taking a walk, or practicing grounding techniques. Some may go get a bite to eat or drink. Others need to count or distract themselves with music, TV, schoolwork, a game, sports, puzzles. The most important aspect we can take away from our own fight or flight response is the fact that our ability to reason or problem-solve our way out of a particular situation is not going to be effective when we are at our emotional climax. We NEED to remember this; otherwise, we will try solving arguments, conflict, and or obstacles unsuccessfully. Give yourself 20-30 minutes to cool off. Ruminating is not allowed. That delays the de-escalation process. Try walking yourself through this process. Once you have found your strategy to de-escalate, you can be help others find theirs.

When we see others battling escalation, we can help calm them down. One really important step here, though, is to remember not to tell others to “calm down”. Often that just leads to more escalation. If you talk to someone else, make sue to use “I” language. Notice what you see going on with the other person out loud. This is the first step to increasing their awareness about their fight or flight response, and their emotional, physical, and cognitive changes as they are going through it. Saying things like, “I am noticing that you are getting really tense” takes away any blame from the other person and uses your senses to observe the other person in the moment. Saying this in a calm tone is most effective (even if you don’t feel calm).

Depending on the person you are talking to, they may act defensively towards you, though their actions are most likely not personal to you, but to the situation instead. Even if they make rude or aggressive remarks towards you, don’t respond to those. Answer their informational questions, and set limitations. Suggest a walk, sitting down, eating or drinking something to cut down on any aggressiveness you see. If you feel yourself getting heated, you may suggest another person take over until you get some down time, if possible. Otherwise, you may just benefit from that walk as much as the other person.

Maintaining an equal physical stance is also important. You want the other person to feel like you are collaborating with them, working as a team, rather than someone who has more authority or acting in an intimidating way. This makes others feel more comfortable. Making sure your are physical attending to them with your body through an open posture and gentle eye contact (not starring them down) gives you more control of the situation. It allows you to keep an eye on their body language and adjust or move quickly if you need to. Be careful not to smile, laugh or mock the person unless you want to see them escalate more. Touch is not helpful (even a hand on the should), but can be seen as invasive.

Empathy is a helpful tool to connect with the person’s emotions while not condoning in appropriate behavior. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment; how would you respond? Feel? Think? Use that in your conversation with them.

Sometimes it also helps to provide different options for the person to choose from, especially given the fact that their primal brain (survival) is at work, not their logical brain. Escalating makes us feel out of control. We feel more in control and empowered when we make our own choices. Help the person gain a healthy empowerment. Suggest they choose to get a bite to eat or go for a walk- their choice.

Once a person has taken some time to calm down, you may feel inclined to debrief with them. Now make note, it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, maybe a day or so before the person is ready to talk about what happened. Respect their space, but also be intentional about meeting again to discuss what happened. When we are in an escalated emotional state, we don’t often think to come back and process an event with another person. We need someone else to help keep us accountable, especially if we’re talking about kids.

When you do meet with the person, ask them what they think happened (what escalated them?). There could be a number of things, or maybe one major thing. Asking them to name the thoughts going through their mind at the time helps set the stage for what to expect in the future. Similarly, ask about the emotions they felt and their behaviors, even diving into what they did, or thought about doing. Sometimes people will act out the inappropriate behaviors, and sometimes they will choose the more appropriate behaviors. More often than not, if we are heated with negative emotions, we think of the inappropriate behaviors first. Have them think about how others responded in the situation to them and/ or the situation. This can foster insight into what others perceive, thus naturally changing the course of action the person takes in the future. The more this process is explored, the more control a person will have in future situations.


Videography: Ethan Chabala

Video Editing: Andrew Moore

Writing: Dr Nicolle Mayo


Produced by Vogt Media

Funded by UPMC Susquehanna, Penn Wells Hotel / Lodge

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