We all know people are complicated.  Social workers often assist individuals who are experiencing escalated feelings and behaviors and are at their most vulnerable.  A good social worker is often called in to deescalate volatile situations.  Social Workers are counted on by other professionals to jump in and calm a situation.

People tell me all the time that they couldn’t do what I do as a social worker.  You probably hear stories about working in the field and think you wouldn’t know what to do if someone is in emotional crisis.  It can be scary.  However, I bet you wouldn’t be drawn to social work if you didn’t have some knack with people already. As you gain experience you will build on your innate people skills and learn different ways to interact.  Here are some tips to get started.  (And they don’t just work with clients – they can work with all your relationships.)

  • Listen – The bottom line.  When someone is agitated or sad – listen to them.  Listen beyond the words.  Are they screaming in rage but really scared?   I think we are all a little guilty of spending so much time thinking about what our response is going to be that we don’t always fully listen. There is time for the response after you listen.  Sometimes – all you can do is listen and bear witness to someone’s struggle.
  • Reflect Back – In most situations it is important the person knows that you are not just listening but also understanding.  Paraphrase and repeat back what the person is telling you.  Let your words show you understand.    You could be saying the most reasonable, calming words to someone in distress but if they don’t think you understand– they will not hear you.  Don’t worry if you get it a bit wrong.  If you do, the individual is sure to correct you and will likely give you a clue of what to say.  One roadblock some people run into, is a belief that understanding equals agreement.  It is not the same.  Acknowledging a person’s feelings and viewpoint is not the same as saying they are correct.
  • Empathy – If you just are unsure what else to say – use an empathetic statement. Something like “It seems like you are having a tough time right now” or “I imagine you might feel a bit afraid” can make all the difference. You can use empathy with friends and family too!  Instead of trying to give advice or fix their concerns – a empathetic statement or two may make the people in your life feel you really get them!
  • Allow for physical space – An easy thing to do but so often forgotten. When someone is agitated they generally need more physical space.  A distressed individual might need dou ble or triple the space with which they normally would be comfortable.  If someone seems to get more upset as you move closer then take a step back.  You might have the instinct to give a hug or a pat on the back.  People tend to be more physically sensitive with heightened emotion.  It is probably a good idea to not touch someone in anguish and give space.  If holding their hand or touch seems very appropriate – ask for permission and respect their answer.
  • Don’t personalize – I tell people in therapy all the time that no one is thinking about them as much as they think about themselves. In a Social Work setting, very rarely will what someone is saying have anything to do with you.  We’ve all heard that hurt people hurt others.  When someone is agitated in crisis they may say things that are cruel or mean.  No matter what they say, remember it isn’t about you.
  • Be Honest– For me, one of the hardest things is when I am working with someone and there seems to be only bad choices and bad answers from which to choose. Telling someone things will be OK when they really won’t or agreeing to something that isn’t true is not helpful for anyone.  Lying will not deescalate the person in the long run.  You will become just another person who lied to them.  (By the way – if there are no responses you can give the person that will be helpful – go for the empathy!)

The above tips seems so simple but they can make the difference between a situation ending hopefully rather than badly.  Being able to help someone deescalate and move forward can be one of the most kind and compassionate tasks you can do as a Social Worker.