At some point, most of us in the mental health field encounter clients who are emotionally escalated in tone or volume. Frequently, these escalations occur in couples or family counseling, when arguments get particularly heated, but they can also happen with individuals when discussing trauma or perceived threats. De-escalating these situations can be a tricky, if not frightening process.
When caught in a situation where de-escalation of emotion and subsequent action becomes necessary, there are several tips to keep in mind.
- The first and most critical step in this situation is to calm ourselves in the moment. Breathe, and remind yourself that you have the knowledge and experience to set the tone in the room. By your quieted posture and voice you can help regulate and reset the level of safety for everyone present including yourself.
Personal space and body language are important in this process. Heightened tension follows triggering cues, such as moving in too close or appearing too authoritative or demanding. It’s best to stay at least one leg distance from the agitated individual(s) and stay at an angle in relation to that person, so as to not appear to be responding to a confrontational standoff. It is also not typically wise to touch a person in an agitated state unless you know the person well enough to know that the touch will be welcomed and soothing, rather than cause for further irritation.
- The next step is to assess level of agitation or aggression you’re witnessing. Things to watch for include: fidgeting, rocking, heightened pitch, volume and speed of speech; pacing; rapid breathing and tightened facial expressions. These can be signs of potential danger, particularly if combined with any verbal or non-verbal threats, such as clenching fists or getting into someone else’s personal space. Signs of aggression often happen quickly, so it’s best to be alert to any signals as early as possible.
At the same time, it’s really important to stay calm, because our job is to de-escalate the situation as soon as possible. Our demeanor and tone of voice are essential to lowering the tension in the room. Eye contact, as much as possible, along with a smooth, soft voice often offers comfort and helps soften the moment. From there you can gently and respectfully guide the dialog toward a peaceful resolution.
Therapists may not always be able to resolve the conflict, but hopefully we can restore some safety and trust with our clients by respectfully remaining present.
Respect-Focused Therapy (RFT) is a foundation on which all modalities and techniques used in therapy can be strongly grounded, in order to produce sound, effective outcomes. This approach offers clients the opportunity to gain experiential understanding of being respected, possibly for the first time, from the therapeutic relationship and then be able to heal old wounds by creating more respect for self and others in the therapeutic process.