Tactical Communications: The Blunder in Telling Someone to “Calm Down” and Verbal Judo Instruction for School Front Office Personnel

32% of school-based attacks were stopped through physical or verbal intervention by school administrators, educators or students.  Knowing this, should schools teach tactical communications (verbal judo) to staff and students?  (Data provided by United States Secret Service, 2002, in a study of school attacks between 1974-2000)

“Please, calm down!”

Consider this verbal blunder.  A school principal, front office secretary or teacher approaches agitated parents (or students) and emphatically directs them to “Please, calm down!”  This command never works, so why do we always use it?

In February 2013, I participated in a tactical response training with the DeForest Police Department (photo below).  While the officers were very skilled in tactical communications (verbal judo), I struggled immensely trying to learn it in the moment and then apply it during the “real life” rapidly developing scenarios of the training.  What did I always tend to say whenever I was confronted by an angry person?  Of course, I repeated, “Please, calm down!” and successfully managed to growl it louder and with much sharper edge, which failed me in both the authentic human-to-human simulations and then the  computer-generated simulations later in the day.  As much as I vowed to adhere to tactical communication phrases, I found myself instantly spun back to my comfortable repertoire of ineffective statements.

“Please, calm down!” 

What’s wrong with saying it?  One, the phrase is a criticism of its authors’ behavior and suggests that they have no legitimate right to be upset!  Hence, rather than reassuring them that things will improve, which should be your goal, you have created a new problem!  Not only is there the matter they were upset about to begin with, but now they need to defend their reaction to you! Double the trouble!

Better option – put on a calming face, look the person in the eye and say, gently, “It’s going to be all right.  Talk to me. What’s the matter?”  Or, ask “What can I do to help you?”  These phrases validate the other persons’ concerns, encourages them to communicate in a productive manner, places you in the role of being somebody who can assist them, and removes fuel that would cause the discussion to escalate to even greater caustic remarks.  Remember, ‘Calm down’ hardens the resistance.  The choice is yours!

Consider these excellent books about tactical communication strategies for the non-law enforcement person:

Verbal Judo – The Gentle Art of persuasion (2004) by George Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins

Verbal Judo – Redirecting Behavior with Words (2012) by George Thompson

Verbal Judo – Words as a Force Option (1983) by George Thompson