Can de-escalation strategies help angry customers stay calm?

Staff at restaurants, shops, airlines, faced much more anger during the pandemic. Many organizations offer de-escalation training. But does it work?

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Angry customer complaining about barista in coffee shop. (Bigstock/tonefotografia)

Angry customer complaining about barista in coffee shop. (Bigstock/tonefotografia)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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Amie Ward has worked in the hospitality industry for more than 20 years — as a dishwasher, barista, server and bartender. So she’s no stranger to difficult situations and angry customers, something that she said comes up everyday.

“People can become escalated for a multitude of different reasons; 99% of the time [it] has nothing to do with you,” Ward said. “It’s part of hospitality … try to make sure that people are feeling good, their needs are being attended to within reason.”

Now as the executive director of a nonprofit called Safe Bars, she trains other workers on what to do in those situations, based on her experiences, self defense principles, and psychology. For example, she advises workers to stay calm, know where the exits are, stand to the side of the angry customer and not in front of them, and make it clear you are listening.

She said Safe Bars started offering de-escalation training because of how customers started treating hospitality workers during the pandemic.

“They’re upset they have to wear masks … it was a change to how things operated, there was a reduction in workforce, so things were happening at a slower pace,” Ward said. “We wanted the people who were working on the front lines of hospitality … to have these skills to make sure that people were kept calm and that they could keep themselves safe and help each other out.”

Staff at restaurants, shops, airlines, faced much more reported aggression and anger during the pandemic, and there are many organizations that offer de-escalation training. But does it work?

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Curtis McMillen was looking for this kind of training and advice back in the 1980s, when he took care of patients at a psychiatric hospital. When faced with an agitated patient pacing around the room, he decided to sit on the ground because that would be the least threatening posture he could take. But he wanted recommendations he could offer to other staff based on evidence. He faced similar problems when he worked with foster parents who had trouble calming down their children.

“We didn’t really have good recommendations,” he said. “They wanted … magic things to say and we didn’t have magic things to say.”

That question stayed with him, and he studied it in his current job as a professor of social work at the University of Chicago. He and his research partners looked up all the de-escalation strategies they could find. This included some unusual ones, like offering a soda, or offering to pray with the person who is upset.

“The justification on the article was pretty clever … if you’re a prayerful person, you calm yourself down in order to pray.”

McMillen found that the advice more or less converged on what Safe Bars teaches.

“There’s a ton of recommendations, and some consensus around the recommendations, but almost no research.”

He designed an experiment to test a common bit of advice: validate what the upset person is saying. His team gathered study participants online, and measured how good they are at regulating their emotions.

Then the participants listened to a story designed to make them upset: imagine themselves seeing unknown charges on a credit card, and struggling to get through to customer service with the bank after being stuck toggling through the automated phone menu.

Some participants heard a message that dismissed the problem, whereas others heard a message that validated their experience.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the validation only calmed down the people who were good at regulating their emotions and thus better at staying calm anyway.

McMillen and his team repeated the research with another group, and could not find a conclusive answer, so they have yet to publish the findings.

They concluded that there is yet to be research on what people can say to de-escalate a situation. On top of that, McMillen said anyone who wants to study this in the future face the problem that researchers cannot make somebody very upset just to study their responses.

So he said while there are experts and organizations who will train people on how to de-escalate conflict, and those people mostly agree on what to do, people will have to more or less take their word for it that it works.

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