Mark Huntington likes to begin training sessions by explaining why everyone calls him Mark H. It’s really quite simple. When he started at Gándara, there were two other Marks and so as a point of clarification, he adopted the name Mark H and it stuck. He tells this story because it helps create a connection with him and his trainees, a mutual understanding. They don’t feel like they’re sitting through a lecture. Connection is an important part of Mark H.’s de-escalation and crisis management training sessions, one of which he held on Friday, January 4. Empathy is a necessity.

De-escalation prevents confrontational situations from becoming aggressive and violent. “It’s not about trying to fix the situation,” said Mark H., “It’s about trying to survive the situation.” What he means is sometimes when we put a lot of energy into trying to fix a situation, that energy can increase the tension between you and the other person. He added: our actions and attitudes have an impact on the actions and attitudes of others. Sometimes your approach can be a part of the problem.

verbal agitation scale

Mark H. has of 25 years of experience in the field. Much of that has been focused on de-escalation. From his time working with inner-city gang youths to being yelled at by Green Berets, State Police, and corrections officers (to name just a few), Mark H. has found that de-escalation is as much about science as it is about intuition. People who suffer trauma, for example, have difficulty with logic and coping because that part of their brain—the part that triggers the fight, flight, freeze, submit, or cry for help reflex—has been deeply affected.

“Be what you want to see,” said Mark H. If you want someone to calm down, be calm; if you want them to listen, be a listener. It’s what he calls an integrated exercise, and he uses a scale to assess and respond to different types of verbal agitation.

At the low end of the scale, you might encounter someone who’s verbally spontaneous, intermittently silent, or talking to his/herself. In that instance, you should communicate your concern and express empathy. You might have someone who’s inquisitive, suspicious, or doubting (e.g., “Why would they do that? What’s their problem? Are they after me?”). Instead of simply communicating concern, try to provide them with answers to their questions while you acknowledge their feelings. At the high end of the scale, if the person is challenging or verbally threatening, it’s best to disengage and to seek safety and/or support from fellow staff members; sometimes a co-worker brings a different attitude or perspective to the situation that helps defuse it.

If such a situation arises at the workplace, the most important thing to do is to remain calm. You need to be able to think rationally, to analyze the situation and determine best approaches. Always, too, be empathetic to the person. You never know what they’ve been through and how it’s affected them.