Your Use Of This Site Is Subject To These Terms Of Use. Do Not Use This Site If You Do Not Agree To These Terms Of Use.

Keys for Successful De-escalation

Paul Dusenbery, Curriculum Director, DART 11/18/2022

As covered in my 10/28/2022 blog post, workplace violence is a serious problem that all human service organizations must address.

Keys for escalation

In this post, I am exploring how de-escalation strategies can provide the foundation for a successful violence prevention program.

Two important resources that DART uses in its verbal de-escalation workshops are Sam Horn’s Tongue Fu and George Thompson’s Verbal Judo. I will discuss these later.

How should staff respond to an attack -
either verbal or physical?

While the correct response may seem straightforward, it’s not so easy when conditions may be changing fast, emotions are running high, and staff have not been properly trained. During a verbal attack (e.g., yelling, swearing), staff must use a verbal response. During a physical attack (e.g., biting, hitting, choking, kicking), staff should use both verbal and physical responses (e.g., blocking techniques). How to respond to a physical attack will not be discussed here. In fact, it should be the goal of every confrontation to keep the situation in the verbal domain.

Using the incorrect response to an attack can be very dangerous and ineffective.

For example, intervening physically in a verbal attack is like throwing gasoline on a fire. One's body language, what is said, and how it is said (i.e. paraverbal cues like voice inflection, tone and pitch) can either defuse a violent situation or escalate it. On the other hand, verbally intervening when someone is physically attacking is like using a squirt gun to put out a bonfire. Words are an ineffective means of intervening when a person is hitting, biting, or choking someone. Often a person's auditory channels shut down and they cannot hear you during the peak of a violent, physical outburst.

We liken a person building up to an attack as someone climbing a hill. In order for an individual to reach a state of mental excitement sufficient to allow them to strike or harm others, they must reach that emotional summit. It’s critically important for staff to keep situations near the bottom of this “Emotional Hill” and not have situations escalate into the dangerous verbal/physical abuse stages.

When dealing with co-workers or with customers, it is always best to have interactions that are at the bottom of the Emotional Hill where supportive strategies are most useful. By far, the most important strategy is to have a customer service mindset. Good, consistent customer service policies and practices can often prevent the need for advanced de-escalation techniques.



Human service employees (what George Thompson calls “contact professionals”) generally have good supportive and customer service abilities. This is particularly true for hospital staff and teachers, but frankly anyone who works with other people can and should have these skills.

"As a contact professional, you alone have the responsibility to create and maintain continuous rapport with people." George Thompson

Below are a few keys to successful de-escalation:

Remember that it is best for staff and their clients if a crisis situation can be resolved as close to the bottom of the Emotional Hill as possible where supportive responses are appropriate.

DART's Resource Section has many valuable resources that can help organizations develop violence prevention strategies, including verbal de-escalation. If your organization is interested in DART's Verbal De-escalation Training, click here.