By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s the new world we live in—where you must show proof of vaccination to go into bars, restaurants, clubs, and gyms in King County.
Due to the high number of unpleasant customer incidents at businesses seeking to follow vaccine and mask mandates, the Seattle Metro Chamber, in partnership with Reach King County and Business Health Trust, held an online seminar on De-Escalation Strategies on Nov. 17 as part of the #WeGotThisWA campaign. Presenter Andy Prisco, National Anger Management Association fellow, founder of the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team program in Washington state, and author of the Crisis Intervention Certification Handbook, Best Practices for First Responders, provided attendees with a crash course on how to regain control of a situation that threatens to ruin everyone’s shopping or dining experience.
“In my lifetime…I can’t recall a period where human beings were so polarized,” Prisco said.
It doesn’t matter what side you fall on in the multiple COVID-19 debates, Prisco explained. What matters is your ability as a business owner—or within a personal scope—to regulate yourself in an over-heated situation and to thereby bring back order to something or someone veering to chaos.
Prisco gave attendees an overview of factors that come into play when a person encounters a triggering situation that could escalate into anger or fear.
We humans default to either our older or newer brains; that is, our limbic “reptilian” brain or our more evolved brain. The primitive reptilian brain helped us survive in the early days of life-or-death, and still kicks in now for some when they walk into a restaurant and are told that a mandate requires they put a mask on, and they don’t want to. This type of interaction can be considered as a threat and cause a customer or client to go into a state of what Prisco termed “discontrol.” At that point, it is the responsibility of the staff to bring back control and not succumb to a state of discontrol themselves.
Prisco explained the three conditions that often “precede assaultive behavior”—getting someone to do something that they don’t want to do, getting someone to stop doing something they want to do, and having to say “no.”
“Where one falls on the issue [at hand] is not the point…How passionate one feels about COVID safety measures—or opposed to COVID safety measures—is not the point…How do we engage these events in the messaging about COVID safety measures in a way that is meaningful, effective, and reduces risk to the person carrying that message?”
According to Prisco, we all have a “responsibility” to self-regulate. When people are in a state of rest, confidence, or control, they access the evolved brain. It is an acquirable state from “growing awareness of how your body works,” and wellness practices during your day-to-day life that “enhance your ability to be completely regulated [so that] …when the crisis event comes, you are less prone to slide down the ladder into your own limbic brain state.” Under stress, our ability to think clearly is diminished. This is why, as a staff member faced with a customer who is in disorder, it is necessary to act like a lighthouse and be, as Prisco described, “an aid to navigation.”
If both sides are fighting, then neither is a lighthouse. Prisco suggested that employees that have difficulty with this, and cause further disruption, should be addressed.
Other tips came in the form of statements such as “the problem isn’t the problem.” Employees, parents, and spouses often “fall into the trap of thinking that we must fix the problem that the person is complaining about in order for them to be okay.” According to Prisco, this amounts to enabling and doesn’t stop the problem from recurring. Rather, we should attempt to get a person to a state of mind wherein they can fix the problem themselves—with our help.
“Our responsibility is to engage this person with as much influence [as we can] …to confer self-regulation in a way that reduces the likelihood of a future emergency.”
This is no less, said Prisco, than to “make the world a better place.” So how do we do it?
Whether it’s a customer who refuses to show proof of vaccination, or a teenager that refuses to do his or her homework, someone in full possession of his or her mental faculties, or someone mentally unstable or impaired by drugs or alcohol, the methods are largely the same.
First, stop saying, “I need you to X.” Break the habit of using words such as “unfortunately” or “but.” This type of language is an “electric current” to the limbic system that alerts the recipient of a blocked expectation, and inevitably causes the situation to escalate rather than de-escalate.
Instead, start by identifying “the desired behavior…and how it serves” the person. If you must deny someone’s goal, validate and reframe so that he or she feels heard.
“I see that you are not wearing a mask.” Refer to any policy in effect, without preface. “The policy is that customers wear a mask.” Then, give the person options.
“If you put on your mask, you’ll be able to come inside.” If the person continues to resist, reiterate and state the consequences.
“You are making it clear that you are not going to come inside unless you violate the mandate. If you violate this mandate…you will be asked to leave or reported to an authority.” If any alternative exists that still keeps to the mandate, such as a take-out order, that can be offered.
In all cases, Prisco urged that we remain humble and compassionate, as often individuals who demonstrate anger, aggression, and violence are acting out from trauma. This can be difficult when someone is behaving disrespectfully, calling us names, et cetera. Prisco reminded us that the goal is to gain cooperation, control, and power back over the situation—not to take it personally.
“I don’t need someone to respect me. I have self-respect. When someone tells me to go ‘F’ myself, when someone makes fun of me, those are horrible things, but it’s going to be a lot more difficult…to change every interaction that causes me to feel that way than dealing with what I can manage and control in me, rendering those forces innocuous.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.