De-escalation: How to talk someone down

In life, as in everything, there are going to be moments we aren’t prepared for. Live long enough and you’ll likely encounter a moment when you need to intervene with a friend or stranger who is rapidly losing control of their mental and emotional center.

Picture it: You’re leaving a party with a group of friends, when on your way out the door you notice that Stan is standing in an empty hallway to the side of the main room, pacing angrily up and down in short circuits, and his fists are clenched tightly. 

Right now you’re at an ethical crossroads. You can choose to walk away from this situation if you deem it too frightening to engage with (you may not always have this ability), or you can talk to Stan and try to help. Talking to someone who is upset does always carry a risk, so be sure to prioritize your own safety in your considerations by leaving yourself an easy path to exit the area or having additional help nearby.

Choosing to talk to Stan, you realize you don’t know where to begin. His bearing is so intimidating that you feel like he just wants to be left alone. This is why beginning with a simple reflection can be most helpful.

NOTICING – Begin by simply observing to Stan that you see what you see.

“Hey Stan, I can see you’re pacing a lot and you’re clenching your fists.”

MOOD CHECK – Connect your suspicion about his feelings with what you see.

“Are you feeling angry?”

VALIDATE – Communicate that you understand his feeling.

“I can see you really are upset.”

ELICIT – Gather more info.

“What are you angry about?”

GROW THE STORY –  Put the info together back to him.

“Okay, so you’re feeling angry because Daren left and didn’t tell you he was going home without you, and he was your ride here, right?”

SOLUTION FOCUS – Shift his attention to what is possible.

“What do you want?”

“What have you tried?’

“How well did that work?”

“What are you willing to try?”

“How, when, or where are you going to do it?”

BE CONSISTENT – Let him know that you care enough to follow up.

“Will you let me know how that works out?”

———

As you read this, you likely realized that the timing and pacing of how you use these prompts will flow differently depending on the situation, and any interruptions that occur.

Additionally, if Stan begins to describe attempting something violent or unhealthy during the solution prompts, such as going home and yelling at Daren, you would not encourage his line of thinking, but instead validate that it proves how angry he is, share with him that that idea is concerning for you because it might end up making things worse and you’d like to explore other options with him, then start the solution process again.

Finally, remember that it is always a priority to ensure your own safety. If you do not feel safe talking to a person who is emotionally decompensating, ask for help from friends, call a crisis hotline, or contact safety services.

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