De-escalation – the only game in town

In tense situations, gardaí, and others, connecting quickly on a psychological level with someone who may be highly emotional, is not just useful – it is vital says Kevin Redmond

We live in febrile times. Reading a situation quickly and correctly is the first part of de-escalating and controlling a situation. The second part is not just getting the other party to comply…you want them to want to follow your instructions. That is a subtle but important difference. Enforcing your will on someone might work but it might not. There is a more intelligent way to de-escalate and hence be a leader in a situation. For this smarter approach we look to two books: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini and The Truth About Lying by Stan Walters.

Persuasion or influence is both a science and an art. It is a science because there are fundamental techniques that can be understood and learned. We think of it as an art because knowing when and how to deploy these techniques is not as straightforward. It takes deliberate practice.

According to Cialdini, there are six principles of persuasion:

1. Reciprocation
We feel obliged to return favours even when we would prefer not to because feeling indebted makes us uncomfortable. A small favour can lead to a bigger favour being returned. We like to repay our debt quickly, regardless of the size. By making a big request and then a smaller request, people are more likely to concede to the lower request as a concession. This is called the contrast principle.

2. Commitment
We have a strong desire to behave in a way that is consistent with previous commitments we have made. Blind consistency happens because of the social desirability of consistency, lessening mental strain, and avoiding confronting our faulty reasoning. Remind people of their previous commitments.

3. Social proof
Social proof is the belief that those around us are behaving correctly so we copy them. We follow those most similar to us when we are not confident in our own judgements. A flipside to social proof is the bystander effect – when people in crowds fail to act due to diminished individual responsibility (…someone else will do it…). This is overcome by giving direct specific directions to an individual and getting verbal agreement to the directions.

4. Liking
Liking and knowing someone increases the chances of a person agreeing to a request. Factors associated with likeability include similarity, compliments, contact/cooperation and conditioning/association. Conditioning and association can be used to increase likeability by connecting model behaviour with social proof.

5. Authority
There are two ways to display authority. Firstly, do not say things like ‘I’m in charge here’. Instead convey your authority with calm demeanour and reasoned comments. If you have to say it, you’re probably not it; convey, don’t say. Secondly, get someone else to talk about your authority. It is a lot more powerful for a colleague to list your CV than for you to sound boastful.

6. Scarcity
Scarcity makes everything look more desirable because anything that is exclusive appears to be more valuable (think art, rare wine etc.). Scarcity can be created by limiting both the availability of favours and time frame for availing of a favour. Competition optimises the effectiveness of scarcity by making it appear that an item has become limited due to social demand.

The Truth About Lying
Remember this – on average we humans are atrocious at reading body language. What you can do is look for areas of interest in a person’s verbal and non-verbal output. Reading body language is useful but not an exact science. According to the author, there are essentially seven keys to look for when reading a person.

  1. Baseline: Look for their normal, baseline behaviour. How is someone acting when they are relaxed and not under pressure? Are their arms crossed? Do they continuously touch their nose? All can be considered normal while there is no pressure.
  2. Change: We then apply pressure through questioning and look for changes in the baseline behaviour. For example, a tapping foot stops, crossed arms become uncrossed. But remember, we are terrible at reading baseline behaviour. So, we reset, allow the subject to relax, look for baseline behaviour and reapply the pressure.
  3. Clusters: We now look for clusters of changes when pressure is applied. That is, groups of changes stop/start.
  4. Consistency: Think of it like a tide of pressure; in and out. Apply pressure, relax it. We want consistency in the clusters of change. If at the end of this you have success, all you have is a point of interest, an area to probe.
  5. Preconceptions: What have you assumed about the person you are reading? These assumptions could be influencing your reading.
  6. Contamination: You are a stimulus. Everything you say and do impacts their output. Remember this.
  7. Cross-check: This is not conclusive evidence of anything…we are terrible at reading people but we can find areas of interest. Keep checking through these keys and iterate towards success.

Kevin Redmond is the founder of, a digital platform that offers deeper learning from the greatest minds to have ever put pen to paper. A free month of their tools is available at

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