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Most of us will recall awkward moments when we were unable to find the right words to express ourselves and our failings led to embarrassment or humor. For some however the significance of the words chosen may make the difference between deescalating a crisis situation or making things worse. In these moments the power or weakness of language becomes sharply apparent.

In The Mandt System program we talk about the work of Albert Mehabrian and reference his studies on ‘Nonverbal Communication’ from the early 1970’s. Though these studies may be considered by some as dated the essential truth of them mirrors our ongoing experience today. Nowhere is this truth more evident than those verbal situations where we are challenged to de-escalate a potential crisis. It is in these moments that the truth of Mehabrian’s hypothesis on nonverbal and paralanguage as the basis of communication interpretation comes to the fore. As the failure of our language choices will often mean the recipient falls back to nonverbal and paralanguage to determine our intent.

In a recent meeting with a Safety & Security manager from a national health service provider we were talking about those staff that have, just from their presence, the ability to calm a situation and de-escalate even without speaking. Most of us have met such people and I wondered if it would be possible to distill some of their behavior to the benefit of all for those moments when the words are not enough. The characteristics and behaviors we came up with were as follows:

• The person in most cases has good relationships with staff and service users alike
• Their first action is to listen
• They usually validate feelings rather than behavior
• Whole communication approach is controlled and calm
• Their approach leads to a perceived win-win
• Healing rather than hurting is their goal and demeanor conveys this

While some aspects of the above list might be innate, many can be practiced and learned. We can work on our relationships at all levels and this investment often provides it’s richest dividends in the healing of crisis moments. Learning to listen before we speak is a discipline that evades many of us but can be a practiced behavior that will serve us well. Legitimizing the feelings of individuals is a critical component. While we may not always agree with or be able to support their actions we can usually recognize that someone is feeling angry or confused. Understanding that perception is shaping their reality is an important key to de-escalation and recovery.

Taking time to slow our verbal, nonverbal and paralanguage allows us to process and think as well as giving sense of control and calm. This is a pivotal skill that can be practiced and perfected even if it is not our natural position. All of these skills must also be coupled to seeking a win-win outcome. Allowing for saving face on the part of all is a key component to the healing approach and seems central to the character of this individual.

In conflict and crisis moments we cannot always guarantee that the words or language we use will not let us down, we are human and our emotions often seek to drive our actions in a conflict. Applying and practicing the characteristics described may aid us and over time build authenticity in the eyes of others. Ultimately, we become one of the people that this short piece is talking about.

Have a great holiday weekend.

Mandt Director of Communications

Ref: Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. In J.K. Cole (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation, 1971: Vol. 19. (pp. 107-161). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

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