Print Issue: June 2013
Managing conflict in entertainment environments can be particularly challenging. Alcohol is frequently involved and most interactions involve more than one person. For these reasons, it is critical that security officers maintain situational awareness. This means looking for and being aware of signs that the situation is escalating. For example, when security is confronting an intoxicated and belligerent patron, situational awareness means noticing that another chair is pulled out or that there are glasses on both sides of the table. Failing to notice these simple signs can have serious repercussions.
In one case, a security officer conducting a routine intoxication assessment approaches a male patron with two other officers as back up and conducts the assessment in accordance with his training. The officer points towards the exit doorway with clear hand gestures to ensure that the CCTV footage clearly shows that the seated patron has been asked to leave the premises. However, the patron's friend, also affected by alcohol, returns from the restroom to see three large males towering threateningly over his buddy.
The security officers give all their attention to the seated patron. Their focus is exponentially increased because they fear the situation may escalate to a physical conflict. This fear causes a "fight or flight" reaction, sending additional adrenaline and other hormones to sharpen hand-eye coordination and reaction time. However, this shifting focus results in auditory exclusion and tunnel vision, meaning that sounds and sights outside the focus area become blurry. In a practical sense, this means that the officers are highly unlikely to notice the approach of the aggressive friend until it's too late. Before the officers realize what's happening, a fight has broken out.
Security personnel who work in hospitality or entertainment environments should be trained to deal with these sorts of situations. A comprehensive program should include inoculation training, a verbal skills assessment, and training on recognizing triggers that could cause the situation to escalate.
The best way to manage the "fight or flight" reaction is through inoculation training. This type of training allows security officers to successfully manage escalating conflict situations through realistic, dynamic scenario and role-play training. This type of training helps to inoculate the officer against the body's natural reaction to stress. Such training repeats conflict scenarios until the officer can recognize his or her response and combat any ill effects.
A critical part of inoculation training is the use of tactical positioning. Training on tactical positioning is necessary to overcome a person's natural response to confrontation, which is to face the other person head on.
When confronting a stressful situation, most officers will stand right in front of the person being addressed, look them in the eye, and speak with confidence. While maintaining eye contact and speaking with confidence are excellent tactics, standing directly in front of the person is far from ideal.
In the classic tactical positioning models, the position of standing right in front of the person you are dealing with is called the "inside position," and it is the worst possible place to be. In this position, the officer is vulnerable because he or she is in easy striking distance of the angry patron. A review of countless hours of footage from aggressive situations and conflicts in entertainment environments shows that venue management is also prone to stand in this position when confronting troublesome patrons.
Fortunately, it is easy to teach officers to use the correct stance and positioning, and that can greatly minimize an officer's chances of being assaulted in a conflict situation. First, officers should stand slightly off to the side of the person they are talking with and also turn their body slightly to the side. This makes officers appear less threatening while reducing the potential strike areas. It also means that if the other person wants to make an aggressive move towards an officer, they will first have to turn their body to face the officer, which the officer will see happening. That will give the officer that extra time to react. It is also much easier to step sideways to avoid an attack from this position.
Next, officers should be taught to place one foot slightly back as they turn their bodies to the side. This gives them a more solid base and if they are pushed, they are more likely to maintain their balance. Finally, officers should place their hands comfortably in front of them at slightly above waist height and hold one index finger in the opposite hand. This is a relaxed, nonaggressive position that leaves the officer's hands in a position to either gesture or defend.
In addition to learning to position themselves correctly, officers must know what to say. Effective verbal de-escalation techniques are a true art form. To be able to verbally de-escalate conflicts takes patience, tact, and complete control of pride and ego.
A key aspect of minimizing any security conflict is to understand that it is not personal. In the case of entertainment environments, the patron is merely venting towards the authority the officer represents, not to the officer personally. It is security's authority or the authority it represents that is not allowing the patron to enter the property or to have that one last drink. Once security officers realize that the conflict is not personally aimed at them, it is much easier to handle the conflict with empathy and impartiality.
The goal in these types of conflicts is to redirect the patron's behavior and achieve compliance through verbal techniques. Security needs to minimize the patron's stress and frustration as this can lead to anger, which can obviously lead to violence. Therefore, the following steps are crucial.
Obtain their name
Getting the patron's name breaks the ice and makes the conversation more personal. The patron is more likely to listen if addressed by name.
Use active listening
By clarifying, paraphrasing, and asking open-ended questions, the security officer can help to ensure that the person is aware that the officer understands the patron's frustrations completely. This helps to lower frustration levels.
The officer should speak slowly and suspend judgment. Empathy is critical during conflict situations. Even if the officer does not agree with the patron's position, understanding the patron's point of view can help resolve the conflict.
Get them to say yes
It is difficult for someone to stay angry if they are agreeing with you. By using clarifying questions and providing summaries during the conversation, the officer can get the patron to use words to vent frustration. For example, the officer might clarify: "So you are feeling frustrated because you can't go back into the bar, is that right?" If the officer is correct, the patron will say "yes" and the more the patron says "yes," the quicker the conflict will de-escalate.
Don't use clichés
Officers should avoid using worn out phrases, which can indicate that they are not truly listening. The worst of these phrases is: "calm down." The patron is not capable of calming down on command nor are they inclined to do so. Instead, the situation deteriorates.
As officers use verbal de-escalation techniques, they should be on the lookout for physical signs that it isn't working and the conflict is, instead, escalating. These are indicators of conflict escalation. All these signs are to be monitored during the conversation while maintaining the effective tactical positioning.
One of the most overlooked warning signs during escalating conflict situations is when the person looks away prior to launching a strike. From reviewing a large amount of video of conflict situations in entertainment environments, I find that a large number of assaults on security operatives and venue management could be avoided by awareness of that warning sign, coupled with the correct stance.
Additional warning signs include when patrons clench their fists or tighten and untighten their jaw. A sudden change in body language or tone used during a conversation can also be an indicator as can pacing or fidgeting. Another indicator is the "rooster stance," which is when the chest protrudes out more and arms move away from the body.
As part of the training, officers should view CCTV footage of other officers in conflict situations. The footage can show these indicators and how they tend to be followed by an escalation of the conflict. It can also demonstrate how security officers can create distance between themselves and an offender.
The best chance of success at minimizing conflict in a hospitality or entertainment environment is effective preparation and training. This training needs to be revisited regularly and include the entire security department to ensure that the skills it teaches become second nature. Developing such a training program is an invaluable investment in protecting the company's property and its patrons.
Scott Taylor, CPP, is national operations manager for Exact Security in Bella Vista, New South Wales, Australia. He is a member of the ASIS International Hospitality, Entertainment, and Tourism Security Council.