De-escalating tense situations amid mask mandates

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De-escalating tense situations amid mask mandates

By Russ Turner, People Incorporated Training Institute - 10/05/2020

Those who work in drug stores and mass retailers regularly see people from the community who are stressed and anxious — maybe they’re worried about a sick family member or concerned about how they’re going to pay for a high-cost prescription. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many workers also are expected to enforce new protocols like social distancing rules and mask mandates. More than ever, these workers need guidance on how best to communicate and help the diverse range of people they are interacting with during their shifts.  

Leaders in the industry need to acknowledge the increasing pressures and challenges store workers are facing. It’s important that staff are trained with the right tools to ask for voluntary compliance, and to de-escalate customers who are defying mask mandates, so that the situation does not turn hostile.

Connect Not Confront
Emotional outbursts are like mini-mental health crises and need skillful interventions since many of the common responses to irate outbursts actually make the situation worse. As an example, telling someone to “calm down” rarely accomplishes one’s goal. De-escalation mode is not problem-solving mode because complex problems require rational thinking and, in a crisis, the thinking part of the brain temporarily goes offline. When a person screams that they’re not going to wear a mask, we teach workers to begin with empathic responses that will help build a connection. In most cases, the responses are different from what people are used to.  Some examples include:

  • “We’re glad you’re here;”
  • “I know it’s a pain;” and 
  • “Can you help me out with the mask thing?” 
  • In other words, connect with them through empathy rather than confront them with rules or logic. 

De-escalating Crises
Connection can be produced quickly even in tense situations by following some simple steps:

1. Paraphrasing what you think you’ve just heard 
This could be responding to an outraged customer by acknowledging “the mask thing isn’t working for you,” or “I realize you’re not happy with the mask rule.” This can be disarming because it’s nonconfrontational; it demonstrates that you’ve heard the person and are sensitive to their feelings. Empathy promotes connection, and connection reduces tension. When we teach this skill in the classroom, many people find it strange, but it’s a skill that can be quickly developed and embodies the idea of being nonjudgmental — another important element in de-escalation. 

2. Look for common ground
This is about finding a common goal: “Help us out with the mask thing, so we can keep the store open” is the kind of script that matches this idea. We both want the store to remain open, so we’re working together toward the same goal. Look for things to agree on, rather than focusing on areas where there is disagreement. 

3. Provide options instead of threats
Threats will quite predictably set off a defensive response in the brain and could result in shouting and yelling. Instead of saying, “If you don’t wear the mask, you can’t come in,” we teach people to create options: “You can wear your own mask or grab one of our free ones.” Again, this is disarming — the thinking part of the brain tries to work out what to do. The use of informal language like “grab” reduces the authoritarian feel of the encounter. 

Often a person will comply, but want the last word on the matter, and if that happens, it’s important to let this go. The end goal is the person’s voluntary compliance, even if it’s reluctant, and workers who realize that they are not going to be able to make someone comply are halfway there. The goal is the kind of interaction where the person quickly realizes that they and the worker are trying to achieve the same thing.  

Russ Turner is the director of the People Incorporated Training Institute.


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