Working Safely with High Risk Populations

Jun 11, 2019 8:49:07 AM

A Conversation with Wayne Spees, WGI Executive Consultant

At WGI, we have noticed a spike in the number of requests for training for active listening skills, de-escalation techniques, active shooter response and specialized safety skills training for those working with “high risk” populations. It’s apparent that many employers are recognizing the importance of providing training for their employees who work with angry, aggressive and difficult individuals that they may encounter within the scope of their jobs, with an eye on safety and potentially decreasing the likelihood of an emotionally charged interaction escalating to violence. 

WGI’s own Executive Consultant Wayne Spees is a former law enforcement professional, hostage negotiator and crisis responder who now works as an expert trainer and consultant, helping our clients develop and master these skills to improve the safety and security of their organizations and their employees. We thought some of you might like to meet him via our blog, and understand  who he is, what he does, and why these skills are so valuable, particularly in environments where employees work with the public or “high risk” clients.

As such, we are proud to introduce our newest three-part blog, which consists of an interview with Wayne, offering some background and insight into his own experience with these skills, and the ways in which they can help employees across industries work with difficult and potentially escalating emotional situations. 

Our first blog about active listening and de-escalation skills is detailed below. Enjoy!

Blog #1 of 3: The Importance of De-escalation Skills  

1. How did you first get involved in teaching about communication and de-escalation?

I spent the beginning of my career as a police officer learning tactics and dealing with use of force situations. During my tenure on the SWAT unit I was involved in many violent confrontations. As I gained more experience I was offered a position on the Crisis Negotiation Team. I saw this as an opportunity to help people in difficult situations where the potential for someone getting hurt was high.  The training I received there allowed my team to resolve volatile situations with no force being used. That meant it was safer for everyone involved.  As a trainer, I pass these skills onto officers around the state. The techniques worked so well that it was an easy transition into the private sector. What’s great about these skills is that they really apply well in working with anyone who may be having a difficult time managing their frustrations and anger and who is being driven by a high level of emotion.

2. Where do you see these skills work well when they are applied successfully?

Certainly they apply to any interaction where someone is highly emotional. The termination of an employee or dealing with an angry customer are two common examples.  But overall, skills like active listening make us better communicators. (Click here for more information about De-escalation Skills Training.) If you are trying to influence someone’s behavior, active listening is a good start.  Even in a social setting, people would rather be heard than “talked to” most of the time.  Being a good listener might even make the difference in gaining a potential client or helping an employee in trouble.

3. What are some of the mistakes that people make as they are dealing with an angry person?

One of the biggest mistakes is to try and change a person’s behavior by confronting it. People who are demonstrably angry are letting us know how they feel. However, since most of us are uncomfortable when presented with anger, our “go to” skill is often to try to change/confront the subject’s behavior. For example, we often resort to telling the person to “calm down!”  The fact is, this rarely works and it does not deal with what is driving the emotion, and it may even escalate the behavior.

Another potential “escalator” is being dismissive of the behavior. People often use anger to emphasize how they are feeling. They want to be understood and may continue the behavior until that message has been delivered. If they feel that their feelings are being minimized or dismissed, we are again likely to see a continuation and escalation of that aggressive behavior.

4. This is a big topic, but what are 2 or 3 “go-to” skills that are essential for de-escalation?

Number one is safety.  Highly emotional people may not have the ability to think rationally.  If you feel that you are in danger or are being threatened, you need to react.  Creating physical distance between you and the threat will improve your safety.

If physical safety is not an immediate issue, then acknowledge the person’s behavior.  Identify the behavior and what you think may be driving it. For Example; “I can see you are upset with this annual review, it seems you feel that you have been under appreciated for your work.” Expressing that you not only “hear” what they are saying, but also understand what they are feeling can go a long way in building rapport with a highly emotional individual.

Lastly, when somebody is expressing high emotion, seek to understand their perspective; stay away from blanket statements like, “I know how you feel, or you should do this or that.” At that moment the subject’s coping skills may be non-existent.  It’s better to say, “Help me understand what you are going through.” This allows the person to vent, discharge some of their negative energy and emotion, and better demonstrates your interest in resolving the problem.


Stay tuned for Blog #2: Active Shooter Events and Personal Safety 

Coming soon!


Topics: De-escalation