Six tips to de-escalate challenging situations on shift

As a nurse, care assistant or support worker, everything you do makes an impact – and upset patients, distressed family members and team politics can make your job more complicated and stressful.

When emotions run high, it can be difficult to know what to do. Challenging situations call for careful de-escalation: it’s important to listen, stay calm and be empathetic, no matter what happens.

In this article, we’ll give you some practical tips and strategies to help you cope with stressful events. We’ll finish with a five-step summary guide to help you gain control over tricky situations quickly and safely.

1. Stay calm

When dealing with a challenging situation, it’s vital to stay calm. Take a deep breath to gather yourself, then approach the people involved with empathy, even if they’re rude to you.

It’s important to remember that they might be feeling frustrated, scared or in pain, so keep that in mind at all times. If you’re calm, they’re more likely to calm down to match your mood.

2. Listen carefully

To resolve the problem, you need to find out what’s causing it. That’s why it’s so crucial to actively listen to the person in distress.

Begin by giving the individual your full attention – with eye contact – to show them you understand what they’re telling you. Reflect what they say back to them, and don’t try to dismiss or minimise anything they say to you, because that can make matters worse.

3. Mind your body language

The right body language can help to de-escalate a tense situation, so make sure you relax your shoulders, uncross your arms and keep your posture open. Don’t clench your fists or make any physically aggressive or confrontational movements.

Gentle, non-threatening gestures – like open palms and nodding your head – show that you’re empathetic and understanding.

4. Speak softly

Whatever you do, try not to raise your voice – even if the person you’re speaking to shouts at you.

Instead, talk in a soft, soothing way and use a calm, reassuring tone. Doing this can lower the volume of a conversation because the other person will usually mirror the way you speak. When people are calmer, they’re more likely to feel heard and understood.

5. Give choices

Options give people a sense of control over the situations they’re in. You can use that to your advantage when trying to de-escalate a challenging situation.

Give the person you’re talking to options, then offer two or three possible solutions. Work with them to find common ground and restore peace: they’ll feel more empowered if they’re involved in the problem-solving process.

6. Ask for help

Some situations call for intervention. If you’re having trouble calming a patient, family member or coworker down, it’s important to ask a neutral colleague or supervisor for help.

If you feel the situation is escalating or becoming unsafe, don’t hesitate to call for backup. Working as a team can help diffuse tension and keep everyone safe.

Communication tips for challenging situations

We spoke about tone of voice a little earlier, but it can also be helpful to see examples of what to say and what not to say in a challenging situation.

Don’t say…

“Calm down!”

“I know how you feel.”

“I can’t help you.”

“Follow me/come with me.”

Do say…

“I can see you’re upset…”

“I understand that you feel…”

“What can I do to help you?”

“Can I speak with you, please?”

Five steps to de-escalation

Let’s roll the advice we’ve given above into a quick de-escalation guide. Here’s how to take a situation from tense to calm in five steps:

  1. Stay calm, and listen. Take a deep breath and listen actively to find out what the problem is.
  2. Use open body language. Relax your shoulders, open your palms and uncross your arms to show empathy and understanding.
  3. Speak softly. Lower the volume of your voice to encourage the other person to do the same.
  4. Provide choice. Empower the person you’re speaking to by involving them in the solution.
  5. Ask for help. If you notice the situation deteriorating, ask a colleague or supervisor for help right away.

Keep calm and carry on

As a nurse, care assistant or support worker, it’s important to know how to de-escalate challenging events as quickly as possible, and when to call for extra help. Hopefully the tips in this post help you the next time you’re faced with a tricky situation.

Florence can help you find flexible shifts near you, take essential training courses and improve your work-life balance. Find out more and sign up today.

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