March 15, 2017


De Escalation Skills – Broadcasting Body Language which enhances safety

When faced with an aggressive person who is presenting combative behaviour (such as any of those behaviours we looked at above) – shaking their fists, pacing and posturing to intimidate – then it is very important that you employ communication strategies which achieve two key objectives at the same time.

During Lone Working De-Escalation, you want to:

1:  Dissuade the subject from violence through your words and behaviour.

2:  Position yourself in a way which enhances your safety.

Let’s start with the first objective.    What message do you want to send to the other person when they are aggressive and posturing?  Well, because of our very unique bahavioural approach to conflict management, we have conducted thousands of short, informal experiments with our groups over the years.

Here’s how it goes:  myself as the instructor and a volunteer find themselves a space in the training room.   We typically do not use a lot of space, and in fact most of our training rooms for this exercise are quite busy areas, with desks and projectors, laptops, chairs and coats, bags of all descriptions all over the room.  Much the same a most front-rooms, bedrooms or hallways out there in the community.

My volunteer is always made aware of the possible nature of the exercise – I will be asking them to observe some pf the physical signs of aggression noted in the previous section above.   I am careful to allow the attendees to self-select for this activity and I have been very fortunate to always have a willing volunteer in my groups!

The volunteer is asked to participate in an observation exercise:  she must tell me in a moment what she sees, hears and feels while I present a display of behaviour to her.   I tell her that, for safety, I am not allowed to touch her and she is not allowed to touch me.   I am standing about 8-10 feet away, room permitting.

We begin:   I break eye contact and begin to think of something which would make me very angry.  I begin to look down at the floor and pace backwards and forwards.   I raise my hand to my face and cover my eyes for a moment.   I rub my head in my hands.  This usually triggers a facial colour change.   Meanwhile I am huffing and puffing a little bit and my physical posture becomes tense as the chimpanzee inside tries to make me look bigger to my imagined opponent.  Then, I slam my hand into a wall or a table and fix my eyes on my volunteer’s eyes.   I turn towards her and step decisively in her direction, a fixed stare now aimed right at her eyes.

I walk right up to my volunteer and if she doesn’t move – most don’t – I will get as close to a nose-to-nose contact without touching as I can.

At this point one of several things usually happens:

  1. the volunteer breaks eye contact long before I get close and starts to giggle while leaning away from me in any way she can, but not moving her feet.
  2. the volunteer holds my eye contact and the proximity between us, steadfast and assertive.
  3. the volunteer starts to step away while scanning me, her colleagues and her environment and denying me any proximity to her.

At this moment, the experiment completed, I take a big step backwards and present the biggest smile I can conjur up, telling the volunteer that the exercise is over and she can relax!   This is very important – the stress involved in this 10-second exercise is palpable every time we do it, and not just for the volunteer!

Immediately as I step backwards I begin the Lone Working De-Escalation debrief with the volunteer:  how does she feel?   What physical sensations?  Very often the answers are:

  • heart beet feels noticeable and rapid
  • hands feel sweaty
  • tension in the body
  • rapid heating-up in the body

Depending on how intensely I have been able to present these aggressive behaviours to her, we have varying intensities of these feelings.  It is worth noting however that even though this volunteer is in a training room with 10-12 of her colleagues, and that she is doing the exercise with an instructor who she has been present with for a few hours already and she is fairly sure he is not going to hurt her (remember the no-touching rule?), none of this matters!   

Fact versus Opinion during Lone Working De-Escalation

The survival brain – the chimpanzee inside – doesn’t care for the constructs of safety or the fact.   As  a primal animal, it only cares about the impressions given-off by what it sees in front of it right at that moment – the clenched fist, the pacing, the tension, the puffed-out chest, the red-face.

It essentially says:  “to hell with your ideas of safety!  there is an angry predator out there and I am getting us ready to run or fight our way out of here!”.   You can’t fool your survival system.  It will act for you based on its assessment of risk, based on the things it can see, hear or smell.

Back to our experiment: we move on to a series of questions around observation and articulation.   What, I ask the volunteer, did you see?  

About 4 times out of 5 the answers we get are as follows:

“You were upset and agitated, you were going to do something, I could see you were escalating and something was bothering you”.

I then ask: “But what did you actually see?”

After a moment of consideration, we then get the factual observations:

“You were pacing, and holding your hand to your face.   Your colour changed.  Your body went tense, your movement was jerky and stiff.   You had a fixed gaze and looked straight through me.   Your fist clenched and you walked right at me.  You stepped into my space, very close.  I felt uncomfortable.”

When we write an expert opinion for a court, it is always important that we separate fact from opinion.

For example, if a worker in a real incident had faced these same behaviours and had decided to kick the aggressive person in the shin before turning to run to the door, then later on she would have to explain the reasoning of her actions to either her boss, or to the police or to some other authority.

In this Lone Working De-Escalation situation, it will be important for her to articulate honestly and specifically what she saw – the facts as she believed them to be – that caused her to decide that the shin-kick was necessary and proportionate.  Her opinion will be important, however it will be all the clearer if she is able to articulate clearly the factual observations she made which caused her to form that opinion.

De-Escalation and Pre-Cues

She may, given her level of knowledge, training and experience with physical violence, be able to articulate specific pre-cues which presage a physical assault.   Examples of these pre-cues are the ‘pectoral twitch’ associated with preparatory movements of the arm before a punch, or a sideways stance favouring the right side (like a tennis player getting ready to serve) which signals a preparation for large swinging blows, or the ‘witness glance’ (also known as the ‘look-away-and-punch’) when the aggressor does a last-second break of eye contact with the target.

Being aware of pre-cues is a vitally important part of Phase 3 – the escalation phase.  Research into the reaction times of elite athletes has found that the difference between novices and veterans in reacting to the movements of their opponents relies very specifically on their tacit awareness of the micro-adjustments their opponents are making before they complete even very sudden movements.   Essentially, there are ‘tells’ in other people’s bodies which – even at critical speeds such as we see in sports or in combat – can make a difference in response-time.

Proximity in De-Escalation

In our Lone Working De-Escalation experiment, the next question to the volunteer is: “Did you want to move during the exercise?  Which direction?”   The answer is almost always the same “Yes. I wanted to step backwards.”

Good.   This is good practice – following your intuition.   Any time your intuition or instinct wants you to step away from an angry or aggressive person, you should follow it, immediately!

Of course every now and then we meet a very experienced volunteer who has perhaps been working with a certain client group which thrives on manipulation and confrontation.  Sometimes these workers tell us that they will not step backwards or step away from these clients, as it would signal weakness or ‘losing’.  We acknowledge that this may, in very rare cases, be the best way to deal with aggressive behaviour and that you may develop a specific strategy for a specific person or situation which requires this ‘assertive strategy’.

Bear with me right now while we explore a more generic role of proximity management and body language presentation – we can return to special circumstances later.

One variation of this experiment is to have our instructor step up to a very close (nose-to-nose) proximity with the volunteer once more and ask: “How does this feel?”

Invariably, hyper-proximity is uncomfortable, unpleasant, weird, unnerving and noxious.  Quite naturally, we try to keep noxious substances at a distance.   We do this mainly by stepping away from them and in the case of a noxious human being, we do this carefully, by stepping away from them while maintaining the ability to watch their behaviour – stepping backwards, not turning around.

De-Escalation and consciously using The Barrier Signal

As I look around the room, I see a huge variation in hand positions, postures, attitudes and signalling as we practice the skill of Lone Working De-Escalation. 

There are:

  • fully-extended arms, pushed all the way to their extreme range of motion
  • compressed arm positions, with the hands just in front of the chest
  • ‘surrender’ positions with the person’s hands placed back and away from their bodies or overhead
  • ‘kato’ from the pink panther (‘karate hands’) most popular with male attendees
  • the ‘X-Factor’ with forearms crossed in front of the body (sometimes with fists)
  • the single-arm fully extended in front of the body

There is, however, one commonality between all of these gestures:  the open palm.   I look around the room and ask the attendees what this open palm means.

‘Stop’.    The chorus rings out in every training room I’ve been in for hundreds of training groups.  This signal – the upraised open hand, fingers splayed and palm pointed forwards – appears to be one of the most universal devices of non-verbal communication available to us.   (In only one case did a young man who was exercising his intellect too far call out “It means Five!” which earned him my close attention for the rest of the day!)

We then proceed to talk to staff about where this stop position needs to be placed and how.  For example, should your ‘Stop’ signal be telling the person that:

  1. you are afraid they are going to hurt you?
  2. you are willing and able to hurt them?
  3. you are submitting to their control of the incident?
  4. you are not engaging with them?

Clearly, there are certain ways we can display and broadcast body language which does not assist us to professionally engage with clients.  Signalling the fully-extended arm position is dismissive and disengaging.   Signalling the ‘surrender’ position is ceding control of the discussion to the other person – they are running things.  Signalling the shallow, hands-next-to-chest position doesn’t protect your personal space or enhance your safety.   Signalling that you have one hand ‘ready’ to strike out with predisposes the negotiation to include the threat of violence.

So, what is our recommendation?

Well, we have to arrive at a good compromise between communicating professional engagement and the need to maintain a safe perimeter within which we can move and think.

Enter the Barrier Signal for De-Escalation

These are the criteria for our ‘standard model’ barrier signal:

  • Hands Open, at chest height
  • Fingers open and splayed
  • Palms forward (pointing towards the person)
  • elbows bent so that your arm is about 2/3rds extended

One key point here is that your arms, while you display this Barrier Signal, should move in a relaxed, conversational way.  They should not be stiff or static – remember you are talking with your hands!

Once you are happy with this posture (yes – you should step in front of a mirror and try it on for size!) then I want you to add in some other elements.   

The first element I want you to add in is a ‘slow down’ gesture.   How do you tell someone to slow down with your hands?   Perhaps by moving your hands – slowly and smoothly so as to model how you want them to move – in an up-and-down space in front of your body.   Careful now – they are not on fire – you are not trying to put them out by smothering flames!  The movement is smaller and more subtle than that!  With practice you will find that using this motion you can suggest to the person you are talking with that you want them to slow down.

In my own practice, I will also often ever so slightly cock my head to one side ( listening signal) so as to show to the person that I am trying hard to listen to what they are saying.   

The combination of Proximity, Open Palms, Slow-Down Gesture and the Listening Signal should all lend your high-stakes conversation a quality of safety and professionalism, compared to a situation where you do not employ the Lone Working De-Escalation barrier signals.

The reason I am going into such detail about this Lone Working De-Escalation Barrier Signal skill with you is that I would like for you to have this intelligent tool at your disposal in any conflict scenario.   I want you to be able to flick an internal switch that is labelled “Body Language for Conflict” so that your body will begin this level of communication without further conscious thought.

Once you grasp the essential elements here:  Proximity, Open Palms, Slow-Down Gesture, Listening Signal, then I want you to practice and apply them in varying degrees depending on the scenario you are in.   Each element has an inflection and a tone which can change according to circumstances.

Gerard O’Dea is a professional violence-management trainer/consultant who has been active in personal safety training since 2006.  He regularly delivers training to local authority, housing organisation and other community-based staff teams who work with sometimes difficult, distressed or dangerous members of the public.  

His approach to lone-worker training is pragmatic, functional and based on a keen analysis of the issues in the real world of community working.  Gerard published “Lone Worker Personal Safety:  A Guidebook for Health and Social Care Staff” (on Amazon in Paperback and on Kindle) in 2014.  For more information please visit:

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Gerard O'Dea

Gerard O'Dea is the Director of Training for Dynamis. Training Advisor, Speaker, Author and Expert Witness on Personal Safety, Conflict Management and Physical Interventions, he is the European Advisor for Vistelar Conflict Management, a global programme focussing on the spectrum of human conflict.

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