S 5 E7

August 2nd, 2021

EPISODE 7: De-Escalation: The Most Essential Management Skill of 2021

We’ve talked about de-escalation in the past, mainly in the context of its application with law enforcement. But as the world attempts to reopen, and we’re constantly bombarded with images and videos of situations that need to be de-escalated — think about airlines, as one starting place — we wanted to revisit the topic. In this episode, we discuss the neuroscience of de-escalation, and day-to-day strategies for bringing down the boil on a situation, with in-house experts Dr. Joy VerPlanck (Senior Insight Strategist, NLI), Dr. David Rock (CEO & Co-Founder, NLI), and Brian Uridge (Deputy Director Division of Public Safety & Security, University of Michigan Medicine).

Episode Transcript





[00:00:05] SO: Earlier this summer, you may have seen a viral clip from an American Airlines Flight into Charlotte, a passenger becomes unruly. They attack staff both verbally and physically. Ultimately, they’re duct taped to a seat. Other passengers took videos and photos. And within hours of landing, it was a global discussion topic. That situation obviously called for some form of de-escalation. That’s been a huge topic in the past year and a half, all typically framed around the future of policing. De-escalation is tremendously important in workplaces, especially now, people are returning to offices, but have forgotten some of the social skills required for an office. They may be uncomfortable in close proximity to people given that the pandemic is not over. They may be in political discord over mask wearing versus not. Situations can escalate, and they need to be cooled. So how does a manager do this successfully? It’s one of the most essential skills right now. So we brought together an expert panel to discuss exactly that. Identifying escalated situations, and the strategies to bring it back to a functional level. 


I’m Shadé Olasimbo, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. Our panel consists of NLI’s Senior Insight Strategist Dr. Joy VerPlanck, NLI’s cofounder and CEO, Dr. David Rock, and University of Michigan Medicine’s Deputy Director, Division of Public Safety and Security, Brian Uridge. Enjoy. 


Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations for human by rating reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Ted Bower, and me, Shadé Olasimbo. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky. And logo design is by Catch Wear. We’ll see you here next time.




[00:02:11] DR: Thanks very much to Brian and Joy for joining us. And what an incredible conversation, incredibly timely conversation. This seems to be even more relevant than when we kind of scheduled this about two months ago. It seems to keep picking up. But let’s dig in a little bit. Those of you new to NLI, our vision is making organizations more human through science. And we’ve had a very busy year with companies actually wanting to take care of humans better than ever, and listening to science more than ever. And what we’re going to look at today is the deeper science of how you turn down complex proactively. A relatively new area for us, but not really. We’ve actually been working for a long time in turning down threat overall in a multitude of different contexts. 


Just to give you some context, around May, June, last year, when the racial crisis really started to hit, we did some deep thinking at the time about kind of how should all organizations respond. And we came down to this almost like a mantra that companies right now need to listen deeply, unite widely, and act boldly. Organizations everywhere need to kind of take this challenge of the racial crisis to really do things big. And we took a long, hard look at ourselves and said, “What can we do? What can we do to act boldly?” And there’s a bunch of things we did internally, but externally, we wanted to contribute in a positive way. We decided to rapidly evolve some de-escalation work we’ve been working on for a while and put together a solution for the police force and actually gave that away. And so we were doing free de-escalation training last year. I think we worked with about six different agencies. 


And Joy, we’ve met you through that time. I know you were involved in a lot of those deliveries. Any quick comments? And I will dig into the guts of this. Any quick comments on that experience?


[00:03:53] JV: Yeah, well, it certainly was a great thing to be a part of through our collaboration with MILO. It turned into a really engaging delivery for our audience. And the feedback was quite good. It was a really meaningful thing to be a part of it a very significant time.


[00:04:08] DR: Yeah, we can talk more about some of the things we learned as we get into some of the content. But it was a really powerful moment. And the feedback I saw particularly from individual police officers was really moving. They were taught to escalate. Literally, everything was about being taught to escalate. And just didn’t have any language on the opposite. Didn’t have kind of even the concept really firmly anchored. And so it was really moving to hear that feedback. 


What we’re going to share today is based on work we’ve done for a long time on perspective taking, on mitigating bias, on reducing threat, a number of things. It’s work that we’ve finely tuned for an environment where conflict is occurring. You’ve probably seen this everywhere from the sort of crazy things happening on airlines, to just violence, or just conflict happening everywhere. It really is accelerating. And if you’re a trained watcher, you can probably get a sense that the fall and the winter could be a little bit difficult, to say the least, coming up depending on kind of what happens. 


So whether it’s hospitals, airlines, but even retail, even just the office itself, conflicts has really, really, really risen. And there’re a few reasons why we think this is happening. The first one is that our social skills really deteriorated in this time from isolation. We literally forgot how to speak to each other and became more acutely aware of other people. Plus, we’ve got a really high baseline threat level from the experience that we’ve all been through. So just that in itself is a recipe for more complex. But then you’ve got this division on vaccines, mask, distancing, all of this. Some of that’s political. Some of it’s not. We’re also got completely new ways of working happening in companies. The hybrid issue is creating a lot of positive things, but also some haves, and have nots, and conflicts. 


Behind all this, you’ve got the context of first responders often having fewer actual resources not being resourced out to meet this demand. That’s for sure. So there’s a whole series of things happening that are driving increased conflicts in organizations, whether it’s a small thing or a big thing. And what we wanted to do is lean in and think about how can we address this in a meaningful way? And yeah, there’s a whole lot of stuff I will tell you. But first of all, Joy, back to you. Let’s get the conversation with Brian going on kind of what he’s been seeing and kind of bring some of this to life.


[00:06:25] JV: Sure, thanks. For those of us in or around Michigan, we’re very aware of this institution, and some component of it touches most of us in some way. But Brian, tell us about what you do, and the types of people and environments you’re supporting.


[00:06:42] BU: I really liked David’s lead-in. I mean, he really described what is going on in our nation, in our world so accurately. That was really good. So as we’ve talked before, working at Michigan Medicine, we are seeing millions of patients and visitors now every single year. And COVID has increased the anxiety level. It has increased the issues that people are whether it’s financial or domestic related issues, and now take those same situations that are occurring. And perhaps we are working more remotely, so we don’t have that informal structure, where we’re at work and we can interact with our staff at the water cooler. Now, that is coming into our health system. And we’re having to deal with – Give those patients, and families, and visitors compassionate care, while at the same time they’re coming in with more anxiety and more other issues. And it’s really causing, obviously, a lot of issues for our staff as well.


[00:07:49] JV: I can imagine that not only the past year and a half has been obviously significant in your space, but how’s it different now that people are returning to campus and sports and elective medical treatments? Have you seen any kind of difference in how people are interacting not only with staff, but with each other?


[00:08:08] BU: Well, what we see, and really this is not unique to Michigan Medicine, is we’re seeing obviously people that have come back full tilt wanting to have elective surgeries. And there was obviously a demand, a huge demand for health care when we were right in the middle of COVID and everything was shut down. So now we’re definitely seeing a huge volume of people come back to all of our health systems in need of health care.


[00:08:35] JV: What do you think has been happening as people went home? I’ve heard you talk before in previous conversation about where aggression went when we all went home. Can you talk a little bit about that and what’s happening to it now?


[00:08:51] BU: So we know that nationwide, while we are on lockdown, that the one crime that went up throughout the entire nation was domestic violence. In fact, in some areas that went up as much as 5%. And when you’re dealing with a domestic violence situation, that is not something that simply stops when you’re at home. So now, let’s take any organization that you’re working in, that is ultimately going to spill over into the workplace. And our job in public safety is to make sure we support our patients, our staff and our visitors both while they’re in route to the health system, while they’re at the health system, and after they leave the health system to make sure that we can give them the type of service and support they need. 


[00:09:39] JV: The stress upon your staff right now is unfathomable for those of us not in the field. So we certainly appreciate the work that you’re all doing and have been doing. What kind of training do you think non-law enforcement in your area and other customer facing areas lack or need?


[00:09:58] BU: Well, real quick. I’ll talk about the issue for all of healthcare. And then I’ll talk about the training. So, first thing we need to remember is that 75% of all violence that occurs in any workplace occurs in a healthcare setting. The staff that work at any health system are definitely at risk. And now that’s only been exacerbated with COVID. When I speak on these types of topics, the number one thing that we really need to focus on in our training is interpersonal communication skills, and kind of what David talked about, where we’ve lost so much of that when we interact on Zoom. Those interpersonal communication, nonverbal communication, and how to compassionately de-escalate a situation to prevent it escalating into something that could turn into a violent action. And really, those three things are so crucial to maintaining a healthy workplace.


[00:10:58] JV: The culture also in an area where people are a little bit more aggressive, or a little bit more stressed out, can really have an impact in a lot of ways. Where do you think workplace violence is especially in danger of becoming just part of the job?


[00:11:16] BU: Well, unfortunately, and this is in a lot of different organizations. But we don’t look at the pre-incident indicators of workplace violence. Things like what we call – In healthcare, we call them getaway behaviors, whether it’s name calling, or things like that, where people are starting to escalate. And we need to develop a training that teaches our staff how to identify those behaviors ahead of time, and then how to work together as a team to be able to de-escalate and identify that and communicate that to your other staff members.


[00:11:54] DR: Can I just weigh in there? I was taken, unfortunately, into a hospital environment in the last couple of weeks. And I was blown away by the tension and anxiety and the culture in there. Not a good thing. It was a reputable, big, important hospital. I was expecting something very different. And it felt like a war zone in there. At one point, five orderlies came into a tiny room and completely escalated a situation. I had to use my best de-escalation skills in the moment to turn something down. But they took this tiny issue and just blew it up by virtue of just five huge people turning up in a room to deal with this tiny issue. And I just think it happened because everyone’s on just red alert in healthcare. And they’re all expecting something terrible all the time. And so things just keep escalating. So a very much a cultural thing. 


[00:12:43] BU: You’re so right, David. And really, you can focus it into two primary areas, keeping people safe, regardless if it’s healthcare security or what organization you’re in, is you have to look at how do I reduce risk? And how do I reduce anxiety? And people are much more concerned about their anxiety versus actual risks. A great example is there are many people that are afraid to fly in a small plane.


However, we will all then drive down the highway looking at our phones and texting knowing that we’re at a much greater risk of hurting ourselves driving down the road and texting versus in a small plane. But our anxiety is real. In order to reduce that anxiety that we have to think differently about how we approach every situation. And what we work on at Michigan Medicine is how can we do what we call non-traditional security? Meaning, how can we make that compassionate contact with a patient or a visitor and engage them in a two or three-minute conversation about nothing with the focus to build a relationship and reduce their anxiety? Because we know through research that the number one patient need is they need that compassion. They need that contact. And that loss of control is so, so crucial to the anxiety level.


[00:14:06] JV: I think there’re so many other people in an environment that are impacted post-incident. So security may come in and address something that’s unfortunately maybe happened between staff or a patient. But how does that impact downstream to the rest of your customer-facing people?


[00:14:27] BU: That’s a great question. So let’s say we have one incident that occurs on a floor. Well, that is not going to be unique just to that room. There’s going to be spillover. And that’s going to impact other patients, other visitors. And that’s really where you have to develop a program where your staff are not only proactively up on the floors engaging staff, and patients, and visitors in a non-traditional way. We call it basically a neighborhood foot patrol. And then additionally, after an incident, we have to look at how can we do follow up with our employees with those patients and visitors to make sure that they got what they need. 


And a great example I always use is all of us here probably have at one point in our life bought a new car. And when we buy that new car, what does the salesperson say, “Hey, in a week, you’re going to get a survey from Ford. They’re going to ask you to give me four stars. And if you don’t give me four stars, I’m going to be important,” because we know that that’s important to that salesperson. We have to use that same follow-up philosophy with our staff to make sure that we’re doing that customer follow-up so we can reduce that anxiety.


[00:15:42] DR: That’s really interesting. I want to just bring you to one point that we’ve been thinking about that there’s this kind of paradigm shift that needs to happen. The way people have thought about sort of conflict in the past is sort of employees should wait for first responders to deal with any kind of conflict, right? Even if it’s psychological conflict, especially if it’s physical conflict obviously, but even people who are upset, or yelling, or angry, or escalating, we should wait. We think that actually employees are the first responders now. There’s so much conflict that we can’t actually wait. And in fact, a non-bulky, large human, or five of them might be the better person to turn things down than sort of raise things up. Can you comment on that?


[00:16:26] BU: You’ve nailed it again. We have got to make sure that our frontline staff are trained first and foremost in de-escalation, in the interpersonal communication, not non-verbal communication, because they do need to be that first responder. We also know when we’re looking at situations like active shooters and things like that, where the people who are there initially, those incidents are over within five minutes or less. We need to make sure we have an engaged workforce who is trained and can look for those pre-incident indicators. And as things start to escalate, de-escalate them.


[00:17:01] JV: Yeah, that’s great. So looking at other organizations, what do you think companies and other types of organizations get wrong about de-escalation?


[00:17:12] BU: My biggest issue is with what other organizations, what I’ve seen is we just don’t do enough of it. We train once a year. When really, we should embed some type of de-escalation in almost every type of training that we do, because interacting with people one-on-one, face-to-face is the primary thing we do. And especially what we see now with people, and David hit the nail on the head when he said people who are angry about wearing a mask, people who are angry about a vaccine, people who have a financial issue, and that spilling over into the workplace. Well, all of those are – Or let’s say that we have visitor restrictions that whatever your organization is. Those things are frontline staff, our clerks, our people who are on the phone. We work on giving our staff members, on the phone, give them de-escalation training along with customer service. Very, very important.


[00:18:08] JV: Yeah, I think that many of us, cognitive load capacity is one of those things that you have to train for. And no matter what your year looked like in some form of isolation, we got used to that. And any, all these additional inputs and stimuli, it doesn’t matter if we reinsert it into the world into a 50% capacity restaurant, suddenly even your app going off telling you that you’ve got five minutes left before your meter is up could throw it off. So a lot going on for a lot of us. 


[00:18:36] BU: And remember, with a pandemic, it’s different than other critical incidents that you may manage. When you’re dealing with whatever your particular profession is and you’re managing a critical incident, when you leave for the day, the pandemic now has hit you personally, and you’re dealing with the same type of issue at home. So our employees, our staff members, our patients, our visitors are all feeling this 24 hours a day, which makes this a unique situation compared to other critical incidents.


[00:19:07] DR: Exacerbating this with the staff shortage that’s happened. The entire country, if not the planet, is experiencing this weird staff shortage, mostly because people don’t want to go to work. And particularly in summer in the Northern Hemisphere, everyone’s trying to have like a recovery summer from a very difficult year and just not ready to go back to the office, or the shop, or factory, or whatever. Understandable, but everyone is short staffed. It’s quite weird as a phenomenon. But it means even getting a lunch wrap. They can take a whole lot extra time and things can go crazy. It’s a really interesting time. 


One question for you Brian, like what have you found really works in the de-escalation training you’ve been involved in? Like when you’ve been involved in this. And we haven’t worked with you directly, I know. So other things you’ve done. But what have you found really works from the field? From your experience? 


[00:19:53] BU: From the field, one of the most important is any de-escalation training that also gives the user and awareness of people who are suffering from mental health issues. And that is such an important component to understand and realize that we have a huge mental health crisis in this country. We have got to train our staff members to work with people who are suffering in that respect as well. So that component, and that’s important for whether you’re in law enforcement or a non-law enforcement capacity. 


And then also that the key skill that is so important is that ability, empathetic listening, being able to listen and understand and at least compassionately listen to the person and repeat back. And you may not be able to change their situation, but it’s that type of training and anything that can do scenario-based is so, so important.


[00:20:53] DR: Why don’t I dig a little bit more into kind of how we’re thinking about de-escalation. So firstly, what is de-escalation? It’s really lowering the threat response that people are experiencing. So escalation is people experiencing danger, acting with very strong reactions back. So it’s moving from a state of high-tension to a state of reduced tension.




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[00:21:40] DR: We’ve been thinking about the critical cognitive mechanisms in this. There are kind of two things that we think are really important. One of those is that we do have a default reaction to conflict, which is to accidentally escalate it. I started having an argument with my 18 year old child the other day, and I immediately wanted to like pick up – Then they walked out. Immediately wanted to like send an angry text back. It took a lot of self-regulation not to send that text, because whatever I said was going to escalate it. It’s really a knee jerk reaction in conflict to kind of send something back, send that text back, send that comment back, have the last word, etc. And the stronger the emotions, the more the desire to do it, and the worst our self-regulation is. So literally, as our emotions go up, our self-regulation goes down. It’s in a seesaw. There’s a kind of default habit when we’re involved in conflict, which is that we accidentally escalate it. And what we’ve got to do is build this new habit, which is when we see conflict, we intentionally de-escalate it. This needs to be habitual. This needs to be kind of something automatic that we do. It’s not going to be fully automatic, because it has to be intentional, that we’re shifting from escalating to de-escalating, and it needs to be quite ingrained. 


And then the second piece of this is we’re shifting people from – How we get there is from no understanding of what’s happening when you’re seeing conflict complex, to clear markers of what’s happening in that conflict moment, and easy habits to apply. So we’re sort of taking people from this is just noise and out of control experiences to, “Oh, I can actually see what’s going on.” This was one of the things that jumped out for me and the feedback from the police force that we dealt with. And a lot of individual police officers mentioned this, that they never realized that threat came at different intensities, and that what they did could turn that up or turn it down. They just saw people as one kind of mass of like they’re a possible dangers. So I have to protect everyone. Versus what I do could make things worse or make things better. And as we started to give them language, it started to literally give them different choices, because they could see different things.


[00:23:46] BU: I really liked how you talk the first thing, was the default reaction is to accidentally escalate it. That is one of the things that I think I’ve seen happen is where all of a sudden – And it can be so much of our hand gestures where people make the mistake of pointing or holding their hand up to non-verbally stop the person, or just a few comments can just – The wrong wording can just cause such an issue. And I’ve seen a couple of comments in the chat about, really, that skill of being a good listener. Listen will to do the heavy lift. Don’t rush into trying to quickly say something. Let’s listen. Let’s find out what the core issue is. And let’s figure out is there a way that I may not be able to make your wait time any different, but perhaps through compassionate listening, maybe I can go help you get a cup of coffee. 


We know that customer loyalty is built by doing things that someone doesn’t expect. So important to remember, whether that customer is a patient, whether that customer is someone that you’re selling a car to, if we can focus on doing something that that person doesn’t expect, who can build loyalty, we can definitely be in an escalated situation. 


[00:25:00] DR: You can imagine, it’s really difficult though. Like just let’s take this out of healthcare for a minute. It’s so overwhelming that you’re in a sandwich shop, you’re in a Subway or something. You’re at the counter, and someone starts getting really angry at you. And you start getting angry back. It’s a default knee jerk reaction, right? And instead, you’ve got to really listen to them. You can see how people would need to actually practice that, like literally practice that shift so that it becomes something they can call on in a difficult moment. It’s not an automatic set of wiring to have someone angry at you and actually pause and really listen to them and really make sure – Not just listen, but make sure the person feels really heard. 


There’s a very, very good research that when people feel really heard and validated, that deep reward networks fire up that helped turn down the threat networks. And it’s a central skill in hostage negotiation to actually make sure people feel more listened to or heard than they ever, ever have. From our perspective, it’s the first step towards creating in-group or relatedness, where you’re on the same side of the table now, and you can now kind of try to turn things down. So it’s really a first step in the de-escalation. 


Let’s dig a little deeper into kind of how we’re thinking about this and how we’re thinking about the escalation issue. So if you’ve been following our work through the pandemic, you will have seen three levels of threat. It’s something that we actually started working with this about eight years ago and included it in leadership programs. But at the start of the pandemic, we found this was a really helpful framework to give people language around. And essentially, the brain experiences threat in three quite different levels. And it’s based on how close to a danger we feel. So how kind of real that feels. It’s actually a proximity issue. 


So level one threat is you think that there is a possible danger, but you should stay alert to it, but you don’t need to be alarmed. You don’t need to be overly anxious. And level one threat is actually a pretty good state for people to be in for being productive. You’re essentially pretty focused. And all kinds of work is better, except for creative work. So level one threat is really good for most kinds of work. You don’t really have escalation issues within level one. Escalation starts to happen when you hit level two, because all sorts of things go wrong at level two. 


So level two, you’re basically preparing for a real danger. So level two systems in the brain kick in when your brain predicts that the likelihood of a real danger is high enough that you should basically turn down your digestive system, turn down your prefrontal processing, like raise your cortisol, increase all the oxygen and glucose to your motor cortex, put oxygen into those extremities. And all of this means you’re basically preparing to fight or flight. But it means you make perceptual errors, cognitive errors, social cognitive errors. You even misread yourself as well as others. And level two is sort of that tipping point where it’s really a gateway to level three, which is the full fight or flight. And people get into level two. And what you do when they hit level two determines if they’re going to go all the way to level three, or they’re going to come back to one, or stay at two. 


And so we’ve been doing a lot of work particularly with the police programs we ran, like distinguishing these three levels. What does it look like when someone’s in level one? What does it look like when someone’s in level two? What does it look like when someone’s in three? And try to get a sense of where they are as you actually interact with them. And if you see someone, they’re clearly in level three, you have to remember that they’re not being logical. They’re being highly reactive. They’re going to react to things really differently at level three, than if they were in a calm state. 


So, firstly, kind of distinguishing where people are is such an important foundation. Joy, do you want to talk a little bit more about that? I know you were involved in some of those police trainings, that this framework was really helpful to a lot of folks? You want to give a bit more shape to that?


[00:28:49] JV: Sure. It was. It was significant, because in law enforcement, we learn that threat is often associated with the presence of a weapon. And so getting people to shift their mindset and recognize different triggers and take perspective. And I know you’re going to talk a little bit more about that. But really being able to suspend what you think is threatening and take a better perspective of what somebody’s actually been threatened by has been very significant.


[00:29:18] DR: And a lot of its teaching them the social threats, right? So it’s really interesting. I hear this dichotomy, like the first responders, whether it’s police or someone in a hospital, they’re kind of focused on the physical threats. But the people on the other side of this are focused on the psychological threats. They’re focused on psychological safety often. I mean, there are physical threats at times too. But more often, I think where the conflict is, it’s around psychological safety. It’s someone feeling like they’re being treated really unfairly and suddenly getting very worked up, or feeling that they have in control taken away from them. And it makes people really mad. So the de-escalation, a lot of it is in the social realm. Brian, do you want to comment on that as well?


[00:29:58] BU: Well, first of all, going back what you said about hostage negotiation. So I spent about 18 years on a SWAT team. And we knew that 88% to 90% of all barricaded people, all hostage situations are actually solved through negotiation or de-escalation, essentially. And the way you describe it is absolutely perfect having been through many of those situations myself. So really, really accurate there. 


And I would agree, just the only thing I would add here is that it’s being able to identify those pre-incident indicators, those behaviors, those small movements ahead of time. Is the person wringing their hand? Are they pacing back and forth? Are they pushing their hands back and forth? One of the things that we do at the health system is we train our officers using a video training, where they can actually use scenario-based training so that they’ve been in those situations before and understand the escalating and de-escalating and they can start to see those types of situations. It’s a very good way to train your staff.


[00:30:58] DR: Yeah, one of the things during the pandemic, we had a huge plummet in certainty, a huge plummet in autonomy, which is a feeling of control, and a huge plummet in relatedness, which is the CAR of SCARF, the CAR of the five things that matter. And you couldn’t do much about any of those. Essentially, you couldn’t do much about relatedness you couldn’t do that much about. But now we’re coming out of the pandemic. Autonomy is something you can do a lot about. You can increase your perception of autonomy or control. And so what’s happening is people are changing jobs in record numbers everywhere every industry and trying to increase their sense of control. 


And if you’re thinking about what you would do after really listening to someone, which is the R in SCARF, like you’d probably go straight to finding a way to help that person feel more in control. How does this person feel like they’re not being controlled? They’re not being overwhelmed? And help them see the choices that they have is a really, really important step. And it turns out that out of control stress is the strongest form of stress. It’s literally called out of control stress, and it becomes manageable stress when we find how we actually can control it in some way. 


I think as your de-escalating, listening is a really, really important step. But then helping that person like see the choices that they have and feel more in control of this situation as you’re going from the R to A in SCARF. Any comments on that, Brian?


[00:32:14] BU: Absolutely. And the only thing I would add to that is we also need to make sure we train our staff in how to physically. It’s one thing to listen and de-escalate. But in order to keep your staff safe, you need to make sure you train them on, “Okay, how can I make sure while I compassionately listen, while I de-escalate, how should I appropriately stand to maintain a distance? How should I hold my hands in a non-threatening manner, but yet in a productive manner? How should I create what we call a reactionary gap that allows me to maintain safety while at the same time not causing the de-escalation to jump from level two to level three? Very, very important subtle skills you can do to keep your staff physically safe. 


[00:33:01] DR: Yeah, it’s interesting. So we first touched the de-escalation space maybe eight or nine years ago. We worked with a pharmacy chain, a large pharmacy chain who had thousands of drugstores around the country. And they said, when the pharmacist was saying no to a prescription for something that was suspicious, like they thought it might be a drug user, or someone misusing it. There was often violence. And when they multiplied the number of stores by the number of people and interactions, it was thousands of incidences of violence a week. Not necessarily always violence, but conflict. 


And we dug in and developed an approach. And it ended up being really clear that when there’s a high conflict situation, you literally walk through each domain of SCARF. Like you probably start with relatedness, “I really hear you. Tell me what’s going on for you.” Help them understand that they have choices. There’re a couple different things that we can do here. You’re treating them really fairly. You’re really making sure that their status is not attacked, that you’re kind of standing down and letting them kind of stand up. And you’re also being really clear. So you end up kind of walking through each domain of SCARF to try to create a positive signal in each one. And that ended up being really effective for them. And we built some scripts that went through right across this organization. So I think there’s a lot of value in kind of having these scripts that you can almost – You don’t want to remember word perfect, but the things that literally turn down the different threats across all of them. 


So we’re just in the early stages of scaling a solution. The tentative title is calm, the neuroscience of de-escalation. We’re starting to pilot this. We’re starting to shift from working just with first responders like police and into organization. So I’ll tell you about how we’re thinking about this. Then we can take some more questions and comments. There are some really interesting comments coming up. We’re seeing three sets of habits that are really important. The first one, and maybe, Joy, you can bring this alive a bit more. I know you’re working really closely on this, but the first one is about really understanding the three levels of threat and seeing that. The second one is really how you turn down that and identify what’s going on with SCARF. Then the third one, that’s what actively responding as well. Joy, do you want to bring that alive a little bit more with some of your experience? I know you’ve been working closely on this.


[00:35:11] JV: Sure. Yes. Well, we shifted quite a bit the way we did it with law enforcement. And that was a valuable learning experience on how to do this promptly and with our brain friendly models, is that the first thing you need to do is assess the threat level in yourself. Kind of the put your mask on first before helping others, assess your own cognitive abilities to turn down your own threat and then someone else’s. And then take perspective. The research on what happens with the brain when you truly connect with somebody else, which can require you to abandon what you think is happening, which is a strong requirement of brain power. You really have to focus on that connection. And then hone in on the SCARF signals that you’re seeing so that you can approach those and focus your response productively and actively in that third habit.


[00:36:03] DR: Fantastic. And Brian, what about for you? Any comments?


[00:36:06] BU: The one thing I think is so important, I love this, and we have to make sure that our staff practice it. And if you’re in law enforcement listening to this, or a security realm, listening to this, or whatever it is, what we try to do is we try to – As I talked about earlier, it’s that non-traditional security and non-traditional policing. Get your staff out in engaging with someone when they’re not in enforcement capacity, and focus on building those relationships. Well, along with building relationships, that it teaches you how to make that connection. How to listen? And practice that while you’re not in de-escalation. And it’s a very, very important skill to teach first responders about that non-traditional relationship-based conduct.


[00:36:53] DR: And now all employees probably. That’s the issue. Now, potentially all employees, because all employees, especially in retail, in healthcare, in transportation, and a number of areas in public sector. All employees, I think, need some degree of education on this. The issue of practice is so essential, because again, your default reaction, and it’s such a strong one. When someone comes up to you and get upset, is to get upset as well. And then to send the volley back, right? Someone lobs an upset at you. And it’s like tennis. And you just can’t help but you want to lob something back. And then they lob something hard. That’s what escalation is, right? They send you a two, you send them a three. They send you a four, you them send a five. And so kind of disrupting that is difficult. And the more the escalation starts, the fewer cognitive resources you have. Like your working memory decreases, your self-control decreases, all of that. How you start the journey of de-escalating is really important. 


So the practice issue is really central. The practice issue of literally getting into a scenario and actually practicing in real time what you would do, because what you’ve got to do is build these new pathways. You’ve got to build new pathways in the brain that are easily accessible when you don’t have a lot of cognitive resources. That’s really the thing. So it’s really building a new habit. This particular habit, I think, really takes some focus. And what we’re trying to do with calm is to kind of break the overall habit of stopping and de-escalating. We’re trying to break that into three chunks, and teach it over like three one-hour blocks, where you actually go off and practice different elements in between. We’re trying to conceptually break it out into what the cognitive steps are, and then literally practice it over three weeks, rather than over just a class. And so we’re looking at all sorts of tools and simulations and other stuff for kind of practicing. 


Joy, do you want to speak to that on sort of the practice element of what you’ve seen and the role of practice in making sure you actually can de-escalate? You’ve been so central in this space. I feel like I’m the outsider. And you’re in the heart of this. And you should be talking more and me less. Over to you.


[00:38:56] JV: Right. So, well, with a background in training and simulations, I’ve seen the impact on cognitive load capacity of rehearsing and building that ability. You can be aware of something and learn something, but unless you apply it and you see it in action, it’s really hard to visualize your impact. So practicing in role play, practicing in simulation, and these tools are so critical to being able to build that schema in your brain so that it becomes an automated fast process, because escalated situations happen faster than you can really think. So you have to learn how to automate them. That only happens with practice.


[00:39:36] DR: Yeah, and someone’s commenting on what we see in the media with police seeming to escalate things. I mean, that’s the problem, is that when you experiencing strong emotions yourself, your default mode is to escalate, right? And if you’re feeling danger, you’re going to escalate more danger back to try to stop it without realizing it is escalating. So the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of self-control, and good thinking, and understanding yourself, understanding others, taking perspective, all that, that prefrontal cortex really reduces its capacity at level two threat. 


I mean, you’re making perceptual errors, misreading situations, misreading people, misreading actions. All of this stuff happens at level two. So what you got to do is teach folks to – As soon as they see the start of conflicts, like work really hard at the very start on yourself and other people to keep it really low. When five orderlies came into this tiny little room that I was in in the last few weeks, like immediately I said, “Hey, this is escalating. We need to de-escalate this.” I actually use that language. We need to de-escalate this. Can we have one person in here? And can we have a quiet, calm conversation? Because you guys are building up a drama with where there isn’t one. Can we please have one person in here? And I said that really slowly and calmly. And I actually had to say it four times before we got one person in there. And then we’re able to have a conversation. But it’s a lot about the first few moments I think are really key. 


Speaking of moments, we’re going to wrap up in a minute. Joy, some closing comments before Brian? And then I’ll hand it back to Shadé in a second. Joy, closing comments from you on de-escalation? This has been your big project. And we appreciate you so much bringing this to us as well. 


[00:41:13] JV: Sure, thank you. Just to address some of the things about law enforcement having this type of training. And there is an unfortunate power dynamic that can raise an escalation just with their presence. And so that can be impactful for management in similar ways.


[00:41:32] DR: Yeah, great. Thanks. And thanks again, Joy, for everything you’ve done bringing this to us. I really appreciate your partnership and collaboration and passion for this space. Brian, some closing comments from you? Your perspective on what we’re proposing? How do we improve it? What do you like? How are you hopeful?


[00:41:47] BU: I just like say thank you for having me. I learned a lot just listening to you, David. And it’s incredible. I can’t underestimate the importance of de-escalation. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of creating a culture around safety, which is really based on what I believe are three things. It’s, first and foremost, building real relationships and building trust. Number two is some type of scenario-based training. And number three is technology to keep your environment safe. And if you use all of those three, you can reduce both the risk and anxiety of your stakeholders that are in your organization.


[00:42:21] DR: Thanks so much, Brian. Thanks so much, Joy. It’s been really great to have an opportunity to act boldly and support the police agencies that we could support and now potentially help more people think differently about this issue. So thanks for your partnership. Appreciate it.




[00:42:37] SO: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Ted Bower, and me, Shadé Olasimbo. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky. And logo design is by Catch Wear. We’ll see you here next time.



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