Mastering ‘verbal judo’: How first responders can employ de-escalation techniques

Learn 7 escalation phrases to avoid, plus alternative phrases to help defuse confrontational moments with patients or bystanders


George Thompson is a familiar name for many law enforcement officers. He deserves to be better known among EMTs, paramedics and firefighters as well.         

Thompson, a former English professor turned police officer, was the author of several books, most notably “Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion.”

First responders sometimes find themselves in the middle of tense moments with patients, bystanders or civilians engaged in protests or other events.
First responders sometimes find themselves in the middle of tense moments with patients, bystanders or civilians engaged in protests or other events. (Photo/Greg Derr, The Patriot Ledger)

Before his death in 2011, Thompson led seminars in effective communication skills for thousands of police officers and was a pioneer of de-escalation techniques in law enforcement. Thompson also held a black belt in judo and ran a dojo, which informed his approach to management of confrontation between police and the public.

In his books and presentations, Thompson described what he saw as common sense: using tactical language calmly under pressure to achieve a clearly defined goal, with the priority of keeping officers safe. His research had found that most injuries to law enforcement officers came from escalation in a situation, rather than from the officer arriving when violence was already underway.

Today, many police departments engage in de-escalation training for their members, and in some states, it is required. However, despite often being first on the scene of an escalating situation, EMTs, paramedics and firefighters rarely get similar training.

Most of the key points in Thompson’s verbal judo approach apply equally to firefighters and other first responders. In particular, there is this list of seven things to avoid saying:

  1. “Hey you! Come here!” Initiating contact in this way sets up the encounter to be adversarial, even before you know the facts of the situation. Instead, introduce yourself and ask, “Can we talk?”
  2. “Calm down!” This is the last thing an agitated person needs to hear and will only make them more upset. Instead, try saying, “What’s the matter? Please talk to me. It’s going to be all right.”
  3. “I’m not going to tell you again …” This will be perceived as a threat and will be reacted to as such. It is never good strategy to threaten someone. Instead, simply repeat the request or clearly state the outcome if the request is not met.
  4. “Be reasonable!” This will have a similar effect as telling someone to calm down. Instead, say, “Let me see if I understand your position …”
  5. “Because that’s the law.” Yes, it may be the law, but just playing the authoritarian card will not help with compliance. Instead, explain why something needs to happen.
  6. “What's your problem?” This question can be interpreted many ways, depending on context, tone of voice and body language. You may mean it sincerely, but the person you are interacting with may feel you are being snide or sarcastic. Avoid misunderstandings by asking, “How can I help?”
  7. “What do you want me to do about it?” This question is not useful and may be perceived as a taunt. Clearly someone wants you to do something about the situation, or you would not have been called. Be helpful. Take responsibility. Ask yourself, “What can I do about it?”

Using these verbal judo techniques or other de-escalation skills requires training and practice. Few people are naturally calm and reasonable in situations of escalating tension or danger.

It should also be noted that confrontation has physical consequences, such as rising heart rate and blood pressure – the “fight or flight” reaction. This may be a useful evolutionary response but will not help to de-escalate interpersonal conflict or make better decisions. To control these autonomic physiological responses, emergency responders must have go-to tactics and language at the ready.

Discussing techniques and philosophy of de-escalation is useful, but the best preparation for using any new skill is actually practicing it. This can happen through facilitated role play and discussion of scenarios. This kind of training may be more difficult to manage in the age of COVID-19 restrictions but can still happen on some level even remotely.

The challenges that first responders routinely face are exaggerated in the era of the current pandemic. Especially now, after nine months of hardship and restrictions, many people are on the edge and liable to overreact under any kind of stress. De-escalation techniques such as verbal judo are more important now than ever. It’s a simple thing that can have a hugely beneficial outcome. Ultimately, it is another important way to stay safe.

Read next: This 1 magic phrase will stop patient conflicts

Editor’s note: How have you employed “verbal judo” on the incident scene? Share your ideas for talking to agitated patients or bystanders in the comments below.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2021 EMS1. All rights reserved.