De-escalate yourself first and then de-escalate others
For a positive outcome in a heated situation, you must first de-escalate yourself and then the situation to solve the problem
By David Kahn and Sgt. (Ret.) Mick McComb
The use of force by law enforcement officers is being increasingly criticized by civilians who misunderstand the dynamics of use of force. Accusations that police did not properly de-escalate a situation run rampant. Anyone serving on the street knows that even the best de-escalation practices are bound to fail, and fail often given the (human) nature of LE work.
There are a few proven de-escalation methods that may entice a person to comply with an officer’s lawful orders. This article reviews two components of best de-escalation practices: de-escalating yourself and de-escalating an aggressive non-compliant person.
If de-escalation has failed and you must consider using objectively reasonable force, the first question is how do you de-escalate yourself to ensure the use of only objectively reasonable, proportional force? In other words, if you cannot gain compliance or achieve resolution through dialog, how do you professionally apply force without personalizing the conflict?
The simple answer to self-de-escalation is emotional regulation, a form of internal mental struggle. When you can control yourself through cognitive restructuring, you can best attempt to govern the vortex of chaos surrounding you.
While emotional regulation on the job may be the most difficult tactic and strategy for anyone to learn, it may be the most important. Despite any indignation or effrontery you may face, policy coupled with pragmatism behooves you to de-escalate, de-conflict and take control. While this is more easily said than done, de-escalating yourself is deceptively simple: swap angry emotions with alternative emotions. It is axiomatic that you inoculate yourself against anger, frustration, verbal threats and indignities hurled at you by thinking strictly as a professional.
A rapid verbal assault stimulates many, if not the same, responses as a physical assault. Anger and anxiety place the body in a similar physiological state. Therefore, tactics to alleviate anxiety may also be used to defuse anger.
To reduce your negative emotions, you can control two factors: diaphragm breathing and muscle control. Your breathing and heart rate rise with emotional arousal. Note that when our heart rate rises just 10%, the truth in any dispute becomes less and less relevant. The altercation devolves exclusively into winning or losing, often ignoring the costs of ultimate victory. Consciously and deliberately slowing your breathing facilitates maintaining emotional control.
Muscle control also helps to reduce these negative emotions. Choose one muscle group, perhaps your neck or thigh muscles. While engaging someone who is insulting or non-compliant, tighten and tense the designated muscles for a slow count of 10 and then release them.
Obviously, you cannot de-escalate a situation if you are not in control of your own emotions such as frustration, anger and other deleterious thoughts that a tense situation may evoke. Therefore, you must reach an internal equilibrium before attempting to de-escalate. If you are agitated, your attempt to de-escalate will likely have no effect. For any emotional regulation, you must first recognize what emotion is controlling or directing you. To get an immediate handle on yourself in addition to breathing and muscle control, you need to put your strong emotions into words or affect-label yourself, for example: “I am angry” or “I feel disrespected.” Knowing what emotions are gripping you will help calm you and slow down your automatic reactivity. Once you learn to affect-label yourself, you can transfer that skill to affect-label a hostile party.
De-escalating a non-compliant aggressor
For a positive outcome in a heated situation, you must first de-escalate yourself and then the situation to solve the problem. You can only effectively address a problem when calm is restored. To de-escalate someone, you must listen carefully and thoughtfully. Reflecting on the angry person’s core message helps a disaffected person gain clarity. It provides great emotional satisfaction of being heard. Reflective listening entails: 
- Trusting your intuitions
- Affect labeling
- Calming the aggressor from a position of strength
- Watchfully waiting.
If you simply repeat back the hostile person’s message or mirror them, you can increase their anger. Often the most important tactic to de-escalating an angry person – provided that their anger has not overcome their ability to listen – is to paraphrase their grievances so that they understand that you understand.
If you need to de-escalate someone, do it early and quickly – preemptively, if possible. Importantly, once a person reaches a high-anger threshold or becomes enraged, defusing a situation through reasoning becomes nearly impossible. A person who has reached their explosion threshold does not care about consequences and readily accepts sacrifice to satisfy their immediate goal.
People tend to hear tone first and the words underlying the tone second. An optimum de-escalation voice uses a firm, non-condescending, low pitch coupled with slow diction.
To successfully de-escalate someone, it is often crucial to “line up” mutual interests specifically to reach an understanding. Importantly, this strategy does not mean that you agree with or accept the hostile individual’s behavior. Your simple message might be that escalating the situation will benefit neither one of you.
Here are a few examples of questions, as outlined by the psychologist Ellis Amdur, that might facilitate de-escalation: 
- “I see that you are upset. How can this be fixed?”
- “What do you think can fix this?”
- “Is there something we can do to make this better?”
- “Sir/madam, I would like to hear what you have to say, but please step back and we can continue to speak.”
Amdur introduces a “ladder strategy” that isolates the most threatening behavior and directs that the unacceptable behavior cease, using a strong command voice. The ladder emphasizes stopping the most dangerous behavior first. Using a strong command voice and straightforward directives, request the person to stop:
- Invading your reaction/safety zone
- Pacing or stomping
- Using offensive language
- Placing their hands where you cannot see them.
Once the most serious behavior pattern ceases, focus on the second most behavioral display and ask for it to stop, etc. Work the person down the rungs of a ladder until the anger/rage dissipates. The ultimate goal is to coopt the reasoning/rationale part of the aggressor’s brain in place of the amygdala’s fight response, thereby obviating a use of force and facilitating compliance.
Correct use of force, paradoxically, is a form of de-escalation
Anger is a state of arousal that is incremental. Additional stimuli contribute to a person’s increasing angry emotions. When a person kicks, screams, or makes aggressive movements, these additional actions are stimuli contributing to ever greater anger culminating, perhaps, in rage. Therefore, one form of de-escalation – defined in an unorthodox way and contrary to the public’s understanding of the term – is for the officer to achieve a dominant control position to end the confrontation quickly and decisively, thereby avoiding further escalation that might lead to higher use of force being used.
We note that no matter how calm and clear-sighted you may be, some people will not listen to reason. With these individuals, the best de-escalation practices will fail – they will not comply with lawful orders unless being physically compelled to do so. Therefore, de-escalation, like other law enforcement tools, may not always be an effective option in obtaining the desired outcome and objectively reasonable force may be required.
1. Noll DE. De-Escalate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017, p. 45.
2. Amdur E. Words of Power. Self-published, 2018, p. 168.
About the authors
David Kahn holds a Juris Doctor and specializes in use-of-force legal precepts. NJSP Sgt. (ret.) Mick McComb is a former 25-year veteran trooper, DT instructor and serves as a federally accredited use-of-force witness. David and Mick provide Police Krav Maga UOF seminars, consulting and instructor certification courses throughout the U.S. To date, they have trained more than 250 LE agencies and have received invitations to teach at the FBI, DEA and USSS academies. David has authored six previous award-winning Krav Maga books in addition to his most recent book Krav Maga "Fundamental Strategies" from which part of this article is excerpted. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, call 609/921-2001 direct or visit www.davidkahnkravmaga.com.