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Guide to De-Escalation

De-escalation in the service sector

You assume that during a conversation you would only answer a few questions and provide information, but then what happens is something completely different. They are probably not even waiting for a "Come in!"; they appear to be loud and irritated. So now what to do?

This guide is intended to give affected employees a first orientation and contribute to a greater sense of security. Seminars on the topic of de-escalation is in the planning stage for 2015/2016. If you want to have a personal converstation regarding this matter, feel free to contact Ms. Andrea Krieg (Campus Family office) or Ms. Sandra Hild (psychological consultant).

Guide to de-escalation in the service sector


The de-escalation approach can be implemented at different aggression spirals. With this, we take a deeper look into the situation, which caused the other person to be irritated, rude and verbally inappropriate. This guideline focuses on situations that occur in the context of service, although sometimes it is not easy to differentiate them because the “customers” are also colleagues working at TU Ilmenau.

How can I prevent aggressive encounters in the service sector?

The following conditions and personal skills may help develop non-aggressive encounters in the service sector:

  • Friendly welcome with eye contact,
  • Office spaces with pleasant conversation atmosphere where confidentiality is possible
  • No interruptions/disturbances,
  • Short waiting time or processing time,
  • The feeling that the manager is behind you,
  • Clarity and transparency for you and the customer,
  • An appropriate workload,
  • Competence in dealing with stress and
  • Confident, friendly, direct communication style.

But even if you implement all of this, the results may be quite different from what you have imagined.

How do I address a person with an irritating, insulting and rude behaviour?

The following conditions may increase your sense of security, so that it is possible to confidently and de-escalatingly address the irritated, rude person:

  • Colleague in the next room,
  • important telephone numbers,
  • safe handling of this challenge by training,
  • collegial exchange on these experiences and
  • the feeling that the boss is standing behind you.

In addition, the following strategies might help break the ice in a tense social atmosphere:

  1. Change the way you see their rude behaviour and try to come up with reasons as to why they are acting that way.

    The perception and assessment of their behaviour are actually the things responsible for the stress and any other emotions related to it, not the actual events themselves. If you take the situation as an insult directed at you, it will trigger the anger in you and therefore causing you to act impulsively, which in turn contributes to the escalation.

    Try to not make this personal ("the way he talks to me…" "… will hurt me…") and concentrate on the mental state and situation of the other person instead. A constructive inner monologue would be:

    •  "It is not about me! That offensive statement is probably due to the desperate situation this man is currently under!"
    •  "He/She does not see me as a person, but instead someone who is responsible for the bad news!"
    •  "It may be difficult for him/her to adhere to foreign regulations. He/She might have interpreted it as an attack directed at him/her. The way he/she deals with it is probably due to his/her (sub-cultural) upbringing."
    •  "He/She is probably very stressed out…"
    •  "He/She has probably never learned how to express criticism or dissatisfaction differently."

  2. Communicative, de-escalating techniques in dealing with irritable, aggressive and rude customers

    A good basis for de-escalating the situation can be provided through:

    1. No onlookers

      • Onlookers reduce the likelihood to come in contact with the person and develop solutions.

    2. A contact person

      • Security guards should not be visible. There should not be several colleagues try to make contact with the person, but just one. The chance of acceptance is at its greatest by having just one person talking to the customer.

    3. Calm yourself down!

      • Perform a constructive inner monologue. Breathe in and out gently and tell yourself mentally as you breathe in "relaxation in" and as you breathe out "tension out" and put a little more emphasis on the exhalation. You may have your own ways to calm yourself down.

    4. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, gestures and voice!

      • Express security through your body posture and reduce the likelihood of it being interpreted as an invitation to fight. An upright, relaxed posture is perceived as confidence and also increases your self-security. If the other person appears threatening and stands in front of you, you should also get up. Do not cross your arms over your chest. This will make your shoulders wider and escalate the tension. Instead, you can do a self-protecting stance by holding your hands together or place your arms over your stomach.

      • Irritated and tensed people need a larger room; therefore, you should make enough spatial distance to show respect. In addition, this could also heighten your sense of security.

      • Achten Sie auf eine wohlklingende Stimme bei ruhigem Sprechtempo.

    5. Talk with a melodious tone and at a calm tempo.

      • Avoid overwhelming them. For example, by the amount and complexity of information or questions. Try to adjust to them.

    6. Eye-contact

      • Look at them when they are talking to you without starring at them. Talk and look away once in a while so that they do not feel somehow harassed.

    7. Avoid making them "lose their face".

    8. A helpful thought is, for example: "How desperate or stressed out a person must be, to behave the way he/she is right now."

      • You may not be able to accept the behaviour but you still can accept the person and respect him/her.

    9. Give them autonomy if possible. Don’t urge him/her to do anything. Refrain from saying things like "Then do calm yourself down". Do not step into a power struggle.

    10. Give them instead "I"-messages which express that you want to help, that you are interested in whatever made them tensed, and that you want to understand and find a solution to it. However, do not make promises you cannot keep. When appropriate, tell them something from your own experience.

      Examples of "I"-messages:

      • "I can understand that ... causes you great distress. I would gladly look together with you at what possibilities there are that you..."

      • "I want to understand you and look at all the available options together with you."

      • "I can understand that you probably don't have much time and want to have sorted it out as soon as possible, however I cannot break the law. I would make myself liable to prosecution if I were to do that. "

      • "I understand that. You probably just are up to your ears in a lot of other things and maybe now even have the impression that bureaucracy is standing in your way. Let us see what we can do about it..."

      • "I have the feeling that you may feel unnoticed in your situation? Here my hands are tied, I cannot decide. I think you can check this with..."

    11. Listen.

      • Let the person talk, even if you have a different opinion.

      • Express nonverbally that you are listening (nod, eye contact, etc.) and repeat punctually what they have said in your own words. That way you can avoid misunderstandings and express interest in the conversation.

      • When appropriate, ask questions. Questions especially W-questions (e.g. "Why?") and questions which can stimulate substantiation (for example, "How should this look like in your point of view?"). This also helps you understand the other person, develop solutions and make misunderstandings explicit.

    12. If you have the feeling that you were able to make contact with the other person, you can propose to him/her to sit down (if not already done) in order to find solutions in a quiet conversation. And later, depending on the situation, respond to what he/she needs to ensure that these "stress situations" will not be repeated.

      • "I can understand your point of view and needs. Let us sit down together to see how we can deal with it, what is possible, what is not and whom we need if necessary."

      • "I am pleased that we were able to communicate with each other. However I would still like to discuss how we could do it differently in advance next time."

      • I am glad that we have found a solution that suits you. I hope this will make it easier for us in the future. At first, I got the impression that you were quite offensive and irritating; I hope we can avoid this part of the conversation next time."

    13. Offering an opposition or appeal option can help cool the situation down.

      • "You have the right to lodge an objection or complain to the chief of the department. Please turn to..."

      • "You have the opportunity to voice your aspiration to..."

    14. If the concerns of the other person do not fall within your area of responsibility, you should refer him/her to other contact persons.

    15. Should the conflict continue without any improvement, you can (with the intention of finding out how the matter can be best addressed) leave the room and consult with a supervisor or colleague.

What to do if the situation escalates and even is followed by threats, property destruction, assault or physical violence?

Do not play the hero! Physical safety first!

  • Use the already prepared non-verbal and verbal communication techniques.

  • Be sure to not do anything that may worsen the situation.

  • Leave the room, unless this increases the risk.

  • Trigger an alarm if escape is not possible.

  • Enforcing expulsion or ban may cause resistance. Therefore, this should be done by the police.

  • Furthermore: if necessary, see medical/psychological "first aid". Provide information of the supervisors (if not already done), lodge a criminal complaint, documentation, notice of accident.

  • Management is responsible to inform the employees.

  • There should be a clear sign that the management condemns any form of violence.

References and further reading

Büro für Berufsstrategie Hesse/Schrader in Kooperation mit VORWEG GEHEN, Umgang mit schwierigen Kollegen, (Abfrage vom 07.04.2015),2012.

Päßler, Katrin/ Trommer, Ulrich, Gewaltprävention – ein Thema für öffentliche Verwaltungen?! -  „Das Aachener Modell“. Reduzierung von Bedrohungen und Übergriffen an Arbeitsplätzen mit Publikumsverkehr, in: Prävention in NRW Nr. 37, Hrsg.: Unfallkasse Nordrhein-Westfalen,  2010.
Rosenberg, Marshall B, Gewaltfreie Kommunikation - Eine Sprache des Lebens, 10. Aufl., Paderborn 2010.

Theiler, Alexandra/ Dietrich, Nadine/ Horländer, Birgit/ Nübling, Matthias/ Lincke, Hans-Joachim/ Wesuls, Ralf/ Gehring, Georg/ Schwab, Michaela, Handlungsleitfaden zur Prävention von Übergriffen in öffentlichen Einrichtungen, Hrsg.: Unfallkasse Baden-Württemberg, 3. Aufl., 2014.

Wesuls, Ralf/ Heinzmann, Thomas/ Brinker, Ludger, Professionelles Deeskalationsmanagement (ProDeMa) - Praxisleitfaden zum Umgang mit Gewalt und Aggression in Gesundheitsberufen, Hrsg.: Unfallkasse Baden-Württemberg, 4. Aufl., 2005.