Rising agitation, resistance and noncompliance are all telltale signs that a law enforcement encounter is escalating, often quickly. Escalating behaviors presents a challenge for officers, who need to be ready to control the situation using the least amount of force possible. Drawing on conflict resolution principles from Insight Policing, we share four elements that officers can consider when situations are getting out of control.
- Escalation is a sign that a person feels threatened and is defending. The defensive behavior is what increases the intensity of the interaction. A threat, in this case, is more than just a physical threat. Threats include any way in which someone feels as though they have been wronged or that something truly important to them is in jeopardy. Think back to a situation where you got mad, frustrated or anxious. For example, when you were cut off in traffic, lied to or disrespected.
We feel our temperature rise, and often, we react to stop the threat in a way that tries to beat it, avoid it, or at least get even. It happens so fast that it feels almost automatic. This is what happens when law enforcement encounters escalate. When someone is becoming increasingly resistant or aggressive, they are defending against a perceived threat. The threat might be the officer, but it could also be a host of other things. Maybe they are worried about being late to pick up their kid, or that they’ll lose their job, or that their family will find out they’re in trouble.
Maybe they feel like they’ve been set up or are being unfairly singled out. These feelings of threat will lead someone to defend — to resist, argue or simply refuse to comply. Remembering that there is a threat motivating the behavior can help us depersonalize it. It’s not about us, it’s about them.
- When people feel threatened, they stop thinking clearly. Judgment is clouded by a need to defend. This is because threats activate a stress response. This stress response is a literal lifesaver when we are in harm’s way, but in conflict, it gets us into trouble. The stress response activates survival mode, where our reactions sharpen to protect us. Our bodies bypass our critical thinking centers for the sole purpose of survival.
In conflict, though, we need our critical thinking centers to reason our way toward a solution. When the threat isn’t physical harm but is linked to feeling wronged or that something important is in jeopardy, defending is counterproductive. Rather than helping, it escalates. And escalation, as we know, creates more harm than good. Remembering that people who feel threatened aren’t thinking clearly can help direct how we respond. This leads us to our third insight.
- To get control of an escalating situation, we want to reengage critical thinking. Our first impulse when someone is escalating is to escalate in kind — to try to use more power to stop the aggression, resistance or noncompliance.
The problem with this approach is that it can trigger a more intense response because the escalating behavior is a defense against threat. More power doesn’t reduce threat — it exacerbates it.
To alleviate the threat, we want to move a person from the reactive thinking of a stress response to the critical thinking of a reasoned response. We want to turn on the reasoning brain because, under threat, it takes a back seat. When our reasoning brain is on, we calm down, we are able to listen, and we can problem-solve. To turn on the reasoning brain and reengage critical thinking, we need to communicate strategically.
- To communicate strategically, it’s important to ask about the perceived threat and listen to the answer. Asking questions is powerful. Questions activate the brain’s critical thinking centers by directing it to actively search for an answer. When our critical thinking is activated, our stress hormones begin to subside, and we become less defensive.
This is especially true when questions are strategically tailored to discover the threat motivating defensive behavior. When questions are aimed at understanding the problem from the other person’s point of view, it creates a connection in the moment. A person will go from fighting against you to working with you because you have acknowledged that something is important to them and expressed interest in what it is.
When we ask with genuine curiosity and listen to the answer, we interrupt escalation and discover information that we can use to bring the situation under control. Asking about a threat — “What’s upsetting you?” “What’s making you not want to comply?” “What are you worried is going to happen? — will reveal information about what has been leading a person to become defensive. When you have that information, you position yourself to help — whether that’s with an explanation or a resource.
When faced with escalation on the job, knowing a person’s behaviors are likely caused by a decision to defend against a threat can help us change the trajectory of the encounter. From there, we can reengage critical thinking by asking questions that bring calm to the situation and help you take control without a fight.