April 25, 2024

Workplace violence awareness: five de-escalation steps

As violence in health care settings across the country rises, verbal de-escalation is an important set of tactics that can reduce a patient or family member’s agitation and increase safety.

“Increasingly, we are witnessing a rise in verbal altercations within VUMC. As law enforcement, it’s imperative that we prioritize de-escalation tactics to mitigate potential violence and uphold a culture of safety and respect for all,” said Captain Michael Pring of the Vanderbilt University Police Department.

Situations that trigger agitation often happen before the health care encounter. Aiming to understand the reason behind the behavior and then intervening early for verbal de-escalation can be effective. Frequently this keeps the situation from accelerating and reduces the duration of the challenging behavior.

  1. Do your best to keep calm. Take a deep breath and respond slowly, without anger.
  2. Keep your voice low in tone and volume. Staying calm yourself is one of the best tools you have to help others calm down.
  3. Be aware of your body language. You may feel scared and instinctively tense your muscles, clench your fists, or raise your arms. While these are understandable reactions, they can unintentionally make others feel threatened and even more upset.
  4. Try to keep an agitated person in a space where there are other people. If you have time to think ahead, talk with your direct supervisor and make a plan for safety. If possible, take someone else with you and think about how you’ll call for help if you need to. 
  5. Always keep yourself between the agitated person and the door, so you can escape if you need to.

“There’s no wrong way to feel after dealing with workplace violence and that includes feeling scared,” says Heather Kreth, PsyD, clinical licensed psychologist, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “Look out for yourself, and don’t hesitate to use provided resources for support, including the Vanderbilt University Policy Department.”

For more verbal de-escalation tips, view in the 10-minute Verbal De-escalation Techniques module Learning Exchange.

For more information about workplace violence prevention, response and employee support, visit Vanderbilt Health’s Workplace Violence web site.