De-escalation: Skills You can Learn to Calm Confrontations


Meet Oregon Grandparents

De-escalation is a way using of verbal and non-verbal techniques to defuse potentially dangerous behavior from people who are highly agitated, frustrated, angry, fearful or intoxicated. De-escalation techniques work, but keep in mind that they go against our natural fight-or-flight reflexes. Remaining calm and detached in the middle of a confrontation is not natural.

To learn more about these valuable skills, we talked to an experienced counselor, Tracey Biebel, and asked her to share tips that — with practice — often work to defuse difficult situations.

Tracey says,

De-escalation is not our normal response. We want to engage in “fight or flight” when we are scared. But in de-escalation we can’t do either. Instead, we  must appear centered and calm even when we are anything but calm. That means that these techniques must be practiced so we can use them when needed. We need to retrain ourselves to respond in a different way when a challenging situation occurs.

Reasoning with an angry person is not possible but, often our immediate response. We think that if we can just make our point clearly and firmly, the other person will back down. But that never happens. If we accept this, we can focus on reducing the level of agitation. Only then can discussion become  an option   

Key Takeaway: De-escalation is a skill set that takes practice and unusual mindfulness since it contradicts our natural responses to stress.

Here are Tracey’s De-escalation Tips 

We asked an expert where to start.

Tracey Biebel is a licensed social worker with lots of experience working with Oregon and Washington grandparents parenting grandchildren. She works in Portland, Oregon.  She sums up her philosophy as,

“I believe every person, and every family, has the ability to create healthy, fulfilling relationships. I believe in celebrating each individual and family’s uniqueness and drawing on the strengths you already possess. Yes, I believe you already have many strengths.”

Learn more at

Remember: Communications is much more than Words! 

Physical Aspects of De-escalation Techniques:

  1. Never turn your back.
  2. Encourage the individual to sit, but if he/she stands, you stand also so you maintain the same eye level.
  3. Expand the usual distance between you and the angry person. There should be about 4 times the normal distance between you or at least two arms’ lengths. Anger and agitation take up a lot of room!
  4. Avoid constant eye contact that can be perceived as staring. Allow the individual to look away.
  5. Keep a neutral facial expression. A calm, attentive expression reduces hostility.
  6. Keep your hands in front of your body in an open and relaxed position. This makes you seem non-threatening: and allows you to defend yourself if needed by using your hands for blocking. Avoid crossed arms, hands in your pockets, or arms behind the back.
  7. Minimize body movements such as excessive gesturing, pacing, fidgeting or weight shifting as these are indicators of nervousness and tend to increase the other person’s agitation.
  8. Make sure that you are not directly in front of the other person, but rather slightly to the side.  If they turn to face you, turn slightly creating a 30-45 degree angle between you and them.
These helpful techniques were adapted from NASW Massachusetts and the Bureau of Emergency Management of the Texas Department of Health.

For more see:


Meet Oregon Grandparents

Emotional Aspects:

  1. Appear calm, centered and self-assured.
  2. Breathe normally and deeply to help you control your own emotions.
  3. Speak clearly and slowly, in a moderate tone of voice.
  4. Be very respectful even when firmly setting limits or calling for help.  The agitated person is very sensitive to feeling shamed and not respected. Treat him/her with dignity and respect.

The De-escalation Discussion:

  1. The goal of de-escalation is to try and bring the level of arousal down.
  2. Do not raise your voice to be heard over a screaming person.  Wait until he/she takes a breath, and then calmly talk in a soft, modulated tone. Allow time for the person to tire out.
  3. Respond selectively: answer only informational questions no matter how rudely asked, e.g. “Why do I have to have to _______ ?” DO NOT answer abusive questions, e.g. “Why are you such a**?” The latter type questions should get no response.
  4. Explain limits in an authoritative, firm, but always respectful tone. Find choices, where possible, in which both alternatives are safe ones, e.g. “Would you like to continue our meeting calmly or would you prefer to stop now and come back tomorrow when things can be more relaxed?”
  5.  Empathize with feelings but not with the behavior, e.g. “I understand that you have every right to feel angry, but it is not okay for you to threaten me.”
  6. Do not ask how the person is feeling or attempt to interpret their feelings.
  7. Do not interrupt, argue or try to convince. Allow a full expression of needs and grievances when appropriate.
  8. Suggest alternative behaviors where appropriate, e.g. “Would you like to take a break and have some water?”
  9. Give the consequences of inappropriate behavior without threats or anger, e.g. “Please stop. If you continue to threaten and yell at me, this conversation is over and I will be forced to ask you to leave when I really want to try to help.”
  10.  Trust your instincts. If you assess or feel that de-escalation is not working, STOP! Tell the person to leave, escort him/her to the door, call for help or leave.