Top 10 Things to Know About: Non-Violent Communication & De-escalation

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As part of the “Top 10 Things to Know About…” webinar series, the American Booksellers Association partnered with the Center for Anti-Violence Education to present two workshops on the importance of nonverbal communication, common communication practices that fuel conflict between individuals, and the stages of escalation.

The sessions covered a range of de-escalation techniques that are particularly relevant in the context of our current political and social environment and issues that may arise related to customers refusing to wear masks, racism, or political friction. One session was designed for BIPOC members only, and the other was designed for all members.

Booksellers that would like to see the recording of the BIPOC session can view it here with the access code CAE2020! The recording will expire on November 2, 2020, at 11:59 p.m.

Here are the top 10 points:

  1. Keep nonverbal communication in mind; it isn’t always about what is being said, but how it’s being said.
  2. De-escalating a situation isn’t about being right or proving the other person wrong, it’s about lowering the overall tension and anxiety in the situation.
  3. Nonviolent communication (NVC) can be used to de-escalate situations where there is some tension, but neither party is fully elevated.
  4. NVC has four components: observe the situation without evaluating or judging; identify your own feelings; identify your needs or desires; and request something specific and concrete from the other person.
  5. Escalation has several different stages, and aggression can be unpredictable. A person might move through the stages of aggression quickly.
  6. Use the acronym “G.A.M.B.L.I.N.” to remember some de-escalation strategies. It stands for: get to “we”; offer alternatives; match and lead to step it down; broken record; lose to win; “I” statements; name the behavior.
  7. When attempting to de-escalate a situation, trust your instincts. Follow the five don’ts of de-escalation: don’t threaten, argue, challenge, order, or shame the other person, as these can all escalate the situation. 
  8. Additionally, consider practicing “upstander” strategies, such as directly intervening in an escalating situation, checking in with the person harmed after the incident, and documenting the incident if necessary (and with the consent of those who were harmed).
  9. If engaging in upstander strategies, remember to focus on supporting the person being harmed and not saving them. Ask what they need from you.
  10. Remember to practice self-care to calm down before and after engaging with de-escalation strategies.

Here is a more in-depth recap of the session:

  • People tend to communicate using nonverbal communication, which can be culturally specific.
  • When thinking about nonverbal communication, there are five things to keep in mind:

    • Eye contact. Generally, in the U.S., making eye contact is a sign of confidence, though it does depend on the situation and the timing (how long you are making eye contact for).
    • Body language. This includes how hands are positioned, posture, and facial expression.
    • Personal space. This can be specific to both cultures and genders.
    • Height, race, and gender. Eye level is an important consideration to make — someone sitting down might feel intimidated if the person speaking to them is standing, even if they’re calm and using respectful language.
    • Sensitivity to cultural issues.
  • Another way to think about nonverbal communication is that it’s not what is said, it’s how it’s said. De-escalation strategies rely on how certain things are being said.
  • Tone is another important consideration — 38 percent of communication depends on tone.
  • One set of tools that can be used for de-escalation is nonviolent communication (NVC). NVC is effective in situations where there is tension, but neither party is fully elevated.
  • NVC has four components (O.F.N.R.):

    • Observe the situation without evaluating or judging.
    • Identify a feeling (yours).
    • Identify your need or desire.
    • Request something specific and concrete; state your request in a positive and not a negative way.
  • Basic template to practice NVC: “When I see/hear (observation), I feel (feelings) because my need for (needs) is/is not met. Would you be willing to (request)?”
  • When making observations, avoid making judgements/tying your observation to your history with the person.
  • When talking about feelings, remember that feelings are related to your body and do not involve others.
  • When making requests, avoid turning it into a demand. Demands use fear, guilt, and manipulation, while requests are specific and actionable.
  • Escalation has a few different stages. Aggression can be unpredictable; a person might quickly move from slightly agitated to full-scale aggression. Identifying the early stages of escalation will help you to respond effectively.
  • Factors that may trigger aggression: prior history of violence, substance abuse, mental illness episodes, highly stressful situations and feelings, physical disability or chronic pain, and personal history of abuse. Keep in mind these factors don’t necessarily cause aggression, rather, they may impact whether or not someone becomes aggressive in certain situations.
  • Common signs of agitation: raising voice, balled fists, rapid speech, pacing, excessive sweating, excessive hand gestures, aggressive posture, erratic movements, fidgeting, cursing, and shaking.

    • In BIPOC communities, some of this has been attributed to aggression, when really it’s a cultural norm. For example, some people may raise their voice when talking to family members, but are not being aggressive.
  • Remember the purpose of de-escalation: reduce the level of anxiety and agitation. Reasoning with an enraged person is not possible; de-escalation is about creating space, not being right.
  • There are quite a few de-escalation strategies. If one technique doesn’t work, try another or a combination of strategies. One can be remembered with the acronym “G.A.M.B.L.I.N.” This stands for:

    • Get to “we.” Create a sense of unity with the person you are in conflict with.
    • Offer alternatives. If dealing with a difficult customer, try to get the person you are in conflict with to a different space to allow others to leave the situation.
    • Match and lead to step it down. If someone is yelling and screaming, speaking in a loud tone might not work. They might not be able to hear you, or they may perceive it as you trying to shush or calm them. Instead, match their register and from there, lower your own voice.
    • Broken record. Repeat the same phrase over and over again. For example: “I cannot let you enter the store without a mask.”
    • Lose to win. Pick your battles. The goal isn’t to change someone’s mind but to reduce anxiety and diffuse tension.
    • “I” statements. Speak from your own position and perspective.
    • Name the behavior. Focus on what someone is doing instead of passing a judgement — are they raising their voice, etc. Offer alternatives to empower the other person, which will help them feel like they have control over themselves.
  • When going into any situation where there’s conflict, trust your instincts. Here are five escalation don’ts: don’t threaten, argue, challenge, order, or shame the other person, as these can all escalate the situation.
  • Additionally, consider these “upstander” strategies:

    • Directly respond to the aggressor or physically intervene, if necessary. Be confident, assertive, and calm.
    • Scan a situation to assess risk and determine how best to intervene; delegate tasks to others.
    • Distract the attention away from the person causing harm, the survivor, or the situation itself.
    • Check in with the person who was harmed after the incident. Also, seek education about systems of oppression and organizing to eradicate violence.
    • If someone is already helping a person in crisis, document the situation by recording on your phone or writing notes. Never post or share a video without the consent of the person being harmed.
  • Upstanders should focus on supporting the needs of the person being targeted, not saving them. Keep your own safety and your own positionality (the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status) in mind.