The De-Escalation Technique Everyone Should Know

Verbal Judo Isn't Just For Cops Anymore

Maybe because I try (and therefore mess up) a lot of things, I've spent a lot of my life apologizing. One of my earliest memories is my dad angrily telling me, "Sorry isn't good enough!" This always bothered me, because as children, we are taught that "I'm sorry," is what you say when you accidentally hurt someone, break something, or otherwise screw up. For most people, even as adults, "I'm sorry" is all they've got.

A few days ago, I had an experience that put me on the other side of this equation. Because of an upcoming event, my wife and I wound up taking our kids clothes shopping around 6 p.m. on a Thursday. After two hours of outlet mall hell (in my opinion, we could have found everything we needed in 15 minutes at Sears, but that's neither here nor there), we decided to get some dinner at a restaurant, thinking it would be faster than driving home and making food.

Depending on where you live, you may or may not have heard of "The Mellow Mushroom" restaurant chain. It's a pretty straightforward pizza place with a decent menu, and the location right next to where we'd been shopping had 4.4 stars on Google, so we figured it would be a safe bet for a quick bite. The waiter was friendly, the place was almost empty, and we put our order in at 8:10.

Keep in mind, we were there with three young, hungry, cranky kids. We were not there for a leisurely dining experience. By 8:30, the natives were getting restless, and I asked about the delay. The waiter told us that my wife's calzone order was taking a little longer to cook, but surely our food would be out any minute. By 8:40, people who had been seated 15 minutes after us were now enjoying their food, and my wife was saying we should just leave. By 8:50, I'd had enough and asked for the manager.

The manager was an earnest young woman in her early 20s. The conversation went something like this:

Manager: I understand that your wait has been a little longer than normal. Your food will be out in three minutes.

Me (annoyed): A little longer? We've been sitting here for 45 minutes.

Manager: You put your order in at 8:10. It's been about 40 minutes.

My Wife: The point is, we could have gone home and I could have cooked dinner already.

Manager: I understand, and I'm sorry. Your food will be out in three minutes.

Me: Yes, I understand, three minutes, but isn't there something you can do?

Manager: Uh, well ... I can offer you some Mellow Bucks, which you can use like cash on a future visit.

My Wife and Me: That doesn't help, because we're definitely not coming back!

Manager: Then I can half-off your meal.

Me: Fine. Fine. Thank you, I appreciate the gesture.

Manager: Okay. Again, I'm very sorry.

After we left the restaurant, I thought about the interchange with the manager. She was saying, "sorry," and obviously it was a kitchen staff issue (they seemed more interested in having a good time than in preparing our food), not her fault. Yet, the way she had apologized had actually make me more upset. Why was that? I realized that nobody had ever taught this manager how to handle an unhappy customer; just like me as a five-year-old, she had nothing in the toolbox beyond, "I'm sorry."

This manager - along with, in my opinion, EVERYBODY else, needs to become familiar with the basics of verbal de-escalation, also known as verbal management of aggressive behavior.

There are a number of systems and techniques for de-escalation. The granddaddy of them all is probably George J. Thompson's "Verbal Judo," which he defines as, "using words to achieve your objective." Thompson was a professor and accomplished martial artist who worked for a number of years as a police officer. He observed that the most effective policing was done by officers who were able to achieve voluntary compliance, rather then having to physically force suspects and witnesses to cooperate. He analyzed, experimented, and synthesized the most effective techniques into a protocol that was applied first for police work, and then later more broadly to any type of interaction in which one person wants to calm another.

According to Thompson, the single most powerful concept in the English language is empathy. He writes, "empathy absorbs tension. If you can project understanding, empathy, you will absorb like a sponge the tension of your child, your spouse or anyone else you're dealing with."

When the restaurant manager started off by arguing with me about whether we'd been waiting for 40 minutes or 45 minutes, she started off on the wrong foot, because she wasn't trying to understand why I was upset, she was arguing and being defensive - the opposite of empathy. Regardless of the exact amount of time, it was obvious that we perceived it as unacceptable. By quibbling with me, she made me feel that she didn't really understand what I was saying. With me (an annoyed but sober and not excessively belligerent customer), it was just unpleasant for both of us. If she had been dealing with somebody truly hostile (especially if he had been drunk or high), that would have been like pouring gasoline on a fire.

So, what could she have done differently, and what can we all learn from it? Let's take a look at George Thompson's LEAPS technique.

LEAPS - Listen, Empathize, Ask, Paraphrase, Summarize


This means active listening. Not just waiting to talk, but being open and unbiased, and actually trying to figure out what the person means and wants. In this case, what did I want? Well, assuming the manager couldn't turn back time, I wanted a discount. I shouldn't have had to ask for it, she should have offered it, right off the bat.


This does NOT mean agreeing with the person - after all, they could be totally wrong and unjustified in being upset. Empathizing just means trying to understand where they're coming from. An easy way to do this is saying something like, "If I were in your position, I would be unhappy too." The important thing is not to invalidate what the person is complaining about, (the way the manager did by arguing about whether it had been 45 or 40 minutes). The point is, when you're sitting with three kids in a restaurant waiting for food that you expected to have in 10 minutes, waiting close to an hour is not okay. Call this a "first world problem" if you like, but the principle applies to any type of situation in which one person is upset about something.


This is an open-ended, opinion seeking question. For example, "What's going on?" or "Is there some way we can solve this problem?" The manager could have simply asked, "Is there anything we can do to make your experience more positive?"


Put the other person's point of view in your own words and play it back. "I'm very sorry that you have been waiting an unacceptably long time for your food. I understand that you have other things to do tonight. This is not the customer service we strive to achieve here."


This is a brief and inarguable final statement. In this case, the manager could have said, "The kitchen promised me the food will be out in three minutes. I'm sorry it's taken so long, and I can offer you either X dollars in Mellow Bucks or 50% off this meal as our way of apologizing for the inconvenience." Whether I found this acceptable or not, it would obviously have been the end of the conversation.

The beauty of LEAPS is that it's flexible. If the person starts off by telling you exactly what they're upset about, you don't have to ask for more information. You can just jump directly to paraphrasing and offering a solution. And, of course, apologizing isn't bad, it just needs to be followed up with something more effective.

The next time you're confronted by an irate customer, a disgruntled employee, or an upset family member, stop yourself from just saying, "I'm sorry," and give LEAPS a try.

Key Points

  • "I'm sorry" is an ineffective way to manage a situation in which somebody is upset.
  • The Verbal Judo system suggests that any attempt to use verbal management of aggression should focus on empathy.
  • When people are angry, they want to feel heard. Once that happens, they often calm down.
  • The acronym for the suggested technique is LEAPS - Listen, Empathize, Ask, Paraphrase, Summarize

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