(Note: This story appears in the September 2022 issue of ED Magazine)
Security veterans Charles Wilson and Gary Sikorski put their combined 55-plus years of law enforcement experience on display at EXPO as they cautioned clubs how to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations at the “Conflict De-escalation” Certification Seminar.
A critical component of adult nightclub security is conflict de-escalation. Gary Sikorski and Charles Wilson of Strategic Club Consultants have a combined 55-plus years of experience in law enforcement administration, training, and the hospitality industry, sports, and corporate security management.
Sikorski and Wilson’s EXPO 22 “Conflict De-escalation” Certification focused on making that great first impression to avoid escalating situations, what to watch for, and how to de- escalate situations, should they arise. The seminar drew the largest crowd of any event at this year’s EXPO, a testament to the priority club operators put on keeping their clubs safe.
“De-escalation is essential, and we’re going to look at it from a different angle,” Sikorski noted to start the seminar. “There’s lots of information from government and private sources. So we try to incorporate the industry’s best practices from all of them, combined with our extensive law enforcement and private sector experience.”
“Whenever we interact with any guest or team member, we’re almost certainly being recorded,” explained Wilson. “So, it’s important to arm our team with verbal de-escalation techniques to avoid physical confrontations which, no matter how you spin them, will never look good.”
Sikorski explained how de-escalation is learning to recognize and address situations.
“I look at things from a proactive/reactive standpoint,” Sikorski said, “and the Left of Bang/Right of Bang concept allows me to apply that perspective to de-escalation.
“Every event has proactive and reactive sides. Something happens before it, so you can prepare for it, followed by the aftermath and response,” he continued. “In addition to de- escalation, proactively, we must consider non-escalation. Sometimes it’s simply not making a situation worse because while we can’t control the other person’s actions, we can control what we do and intercede early.”
Once we get to the point of de-escalation, Sikorski explained, “that’s right of bang, you’re addressing a situation that’s already happening. Non-escalation is more proactive; however, you need both approaches.”
Sikorski explained having a law enforcement background doesn’t mean security is the right fit for someone because law enforcement is typically very reactive.
“Excuse my French,” Wilson added, “but by the time police arrive, shit has already happened. It’s too late to try de- escalating a situation when we’re trying to mitigate things going on from a 911 perspective.
“I did not realize the difficult job our security staff has in diffusing a situation compared to law enforcement,” Wilson said. “They don’t have the power to arrest that law enforcement has. So, from a private customer service and security standpoint, that situational awareness and the ability to talk down a situation before it gets to that point is critically important.”
Sikorski pointed out how he learned upon entering private security that in a crisis, staff are first responders.
“Seconds count and police are often minutes away,” he said, “so we must deal with that reality.”
Homeland Security defines de-escalation as defusing aggression, which is different than crisis intervention, noted Sikorski. “De-escalation minimizes conflict, incidents, and lawsuits. This arms club attorneys and insurance carriers with evidence that you’re taking serious steps to address those issues, so if something goes wrong, at least you tried and have a system in place. De-escalation and non-escalation don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s about proactively establishing positive relationships with guests early on so that you’re not starting from scratch if something happens.”
“Whenever we interact with any guest or team member, we’re almost certainly being recorded,” explained Charles Wilson. “So, it’s important to arm our team with verbal de-escalation techniques to avoid physical confrontations which, no matter how you spin them, will never look good.” — Charles Wilson
Wilson explained a club with a polished, professional customer service staff facilitates de-escalating situations.
“For example, when you feel welcomed at a restaurant, you’ll give that server the benefit of the doubt if your order is wrong. But if you walk into a place where they’ve already got an attitude, you’re prepared to argue,” Wilson said. “The same goes for your club and the entire guest-facing customer service staff; it’s everybody’s responsibility. If everybody working as a team to minimize situations becomes a part of your club culture, it’s much more manageable.”
Wilson cautioned that just because an employee has 10-20 years of industry experience, they are not guaranteed to practice non-escalation and de-escalation techniques. So,
it’s crucial to regularly reevaluate your staff, policies, and procedures and ensure that de-escalation is a key component.
Wilson added that as well as de-escalating to calm guests down, it’s sometimes necessary to calm yourself or another team member down.
“I’ve had times when folks pulled me out of a situation because they could see that I was getting upset and it was not going to end well,” he explained.
Sikorski then led participants through a breathing exercise that serves to lower their own heart rate and blood pressure in stressful situations.
“Telling somebody to calm down just doesn’t work,” Sikorski said. “Don’t challenge, point or insult. Be aware of your body language and what you bring to the table. Don’t take behaviors personally, and don’t deny the issue.
“We know what not to do, but what can we do? First, maintain situational awareness of what’s around you. Lowering your voice and slowing your rate of speech really helps,” Sikorski added. “Watch body positioning — your hands and their hands; how are you presenting yourself? And again, only use physical intervention as a last resort.”
Along with maintaining awareness, try to maintain a reactionary gap or “safe zone” between you and a person becoming aggressive or assaultive. Typically, it is 6 feet or one- and-a-half large strides from the person.
Sikorski picked an audience volunteer and demonstrated through an exercise that “action” is faster than “reaction” from three different distances and that maintaining a safe distance is critical in an escalating situation.
“All the training in the world won’t help you if you’re unconscious two seconds into the encounter,” noted Sikorski. “So now we’re at a position of practicing situational awareness; we’re looking for subtle clues. Sometimes that’s an inappropriate smile, scuffling of shoes, things we might recognize but not know why, so it’s important to quantify them. Are both their hands visible? If somebody has a hand hidden, something could be in that hand.”
Sikorski also stressed the importance of listening to what a potential bad actor is saying.
“Sometimes we’re too worried about what we’ll say next to even hear what they’re saying,” he said. “They might be conveying precisely what they’re going to do.”
This is part of establishing a rapport up front with the guest so it’s there when needed — it’s not about right or wrong.
“It’s about solving whatever that issue is,” Sikorski said. “The points of view of the staffer and the guest having a conflict aren’t that different. They both want that guest to have a fun time without disrupting others.”
“Telling somebody to calm down just doesn’t work. Don’t challenge, point or insult. Be aware of your body language and what you bring to the table. Don’t take behaviors personally, and don’t deny the issue. Maintain situational awareness of what’s around you. Lowering your voice and slowing your rate of speech really helps.” — Gary Sikorski
Sikorski then relayed a lesson that stuck with him from a training session he previously attended.
“They suggested some verbal responses to disarm a verbal aggressor,” Sikorski recalled. “For example, you might tell the person, ‘If I were you, I’d feel exactly the same.’ That’s not catering to somebody, that’s inherently true, so it’s a way to disarm them. You can agree to disagree, that doesn’t mean you’re taking on their position, but you’re acknowledging that you’re hearing them.
“Some other responses are, ‘You might be right,’ ‘We have to agree to disagree,’ and then ‘That’s a fair statement,’ or That’s a fair position.’ What these do, if you understand the OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide and act), a process that everybody goes through, is to surprise them as they’re probably not expecting any of these responses. They expected push-back from you, rather than the deflecting or agreeing with what you’ve done.”
Sikorski ended the seminar with a recollection of a customer satisfaction study about people who were upset with companies and what their customer service departments did to achieve positive outcomes.
“The number one response, 46% of respondents: they listened carefully, understood the problem, and demonstrated empathy. Next, at 33%, they offered a refund, upgrade, or promo code; they tried to make it right. And then 28% didn’t say no and explained what they would do to work to resolve the problem. And then 21% didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep and were upfront about it. Finally, a remarkable 90% reported that they were calm, even though I was upset. That may not have resonated at the time, but that resonated afterward. That’s huge; they were calm while I was being an idiot. And then last, at 16%, they expressed that they valued me as a customer through words or actions.
“That’s the end result of doing many right things early on,” Sikorski continued. “Then if it gets to the de-escalation phase, again, now you’re in that reactive mode. However, there are still things that you can do to not only take that energy out of that situation but create a positive environment for the future with that individual.”