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De-escalating heightened situations in the workplace

Posted by on in Workplace Conflict
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Some workplace roles involve managing potentially or actual heightened or volatile situations on a regular basis. 

Circumstances can arise when behaviours extend past ‘difficult’ and into challenging conduct which requires more sophisticated skill sets in order to positively respond and manage. Unfortunately, managing situations that involve elevated emotions and potential physical harm in workplaces is increasing.

Challenging behaviour can be described as ‘those behaviours that threaten the quality of life and/or physical safety of an individual or others’.* It sometimes exists on a continuum and may include one or more of the following:

  • open or passive aggression
  • physical or emotional harassment (e.g. verbal abuse or threats, bullying, racism, stalking)
  • refusing to co-operate with authority figures
  • refusing to comply with organisational codes of conduct, policies and procedures
  • theft or property damage.
  • self-harm, including alcohol or drug abuse

* Source

So how do you cope with these types of behaviours, reduce potential harm and restore calm in the workplace?

The key is in developing the skills to respond rather than react.

This is much harder than you might think because like all animals, humans are hard-wired to react in either a ‘fight or flight’ mode in threatening situations. Overriding our instinctive reactions takes skill, practice and commitment. 

Here are our top ‘DOs’ and ‘DON’Ts’ for de-escalating heightened situations in the workplace:

1.  DO stay calm so you can think rationally and use your professional judgement to assess the risks.

2.  DO focus on your communication skills. Use a calm, neutral tone of voice and be very conscious of your language so as not to inflame the situation.

3.  DO listen respectfully to the person. Ask open-ended questions to identify the issues and reply using ‘reflective listening’ skills to show that you are paying attention. Allow the person ‘vent’ and don’t interrupt them.

4.  DO be clear, concise and unemotional about what you are seeking from them. Using simple language, outline the impact of their behaviour(s) on others and the workplace as a whole.  Calmly explain the boundaries for behaviour and the consequences of non-compliance in terms of simple choices.

5.  DON’T be afraid of silences in the conversation. They may feel long and awkward to you but they are giving the other person breathing space and time to think about what you’ve said, reflect on their current situation and make decisions about what they do next.

6.  DO focus on your non-verbal communication skills. These are the most critical skills in a heightened situation – be very conscious of the signals you may be (inadvertently) sending.  In particular, using some eye contact (if culturally appropriate) to communicate during heated situations is vital.

7.  DON’T ever turn your back on someone behaving erratically or aggressively. If possible, try to put some kind of physical barrier (e.g. a desk or chair) between you and the other person.

8.  DO stand at a slight angle away from the other person, rather than facing them head-on which could be construed as confrontational.  

9.  DON’T respond to challenging questions or personal provocations. If the person questions your authority, redirect the conversation to the issue at hand.  

10.  DO respond immediately if you feel physically threatened. Use an open-handed pushback with your hand out at shoulder level in front of you.  Include clear verbal instructions, e.g. ‘Stop! Get back!’

11.  DON’T be a hero and physically intervene unless it is completely unavoidable.

12.  DO de-brief with others involved after the event. It may help you to deal with the stress of what happened, get a better understanding of how the situation unfolded and plan more effectively for the future.

For more information on options to develop skills in managing challenging behaviours for yourself or your teams, please contact us.

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