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Building Safer & Stronger Teams: 4 tools that drive de-escalation

In these trying times, guests and employees alike need some empathy. Here’s how to give them some.

The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, and we’re still caught in the emotional waves. Add a war in Europe, the widening economic divide, inflation and a growing political crisis, and it’s understandable that people’s emotions are fried. During these difficult times, how can we be supportive leaders, and how do we use an empathetic mindset to avoid unnecessary conflict?

In the fall of 2020, around the time I started feeling my own patience wearing thin, our team at ARROW UP TRAINING began work on a course for the city of Santa Monica. Together we made courses aimed at fostering empathy and teaching de-escalation. Developing effective training always starts by listening to a diversity of thought. It’s important to incorporate all the points of view — so we interviewed veteran restaurant leaders, guests, first-time employees, city officials and even psychologists.

A lot of what we learned while building those courses can be boiled down to four key tools — techniques that help de-escalate tense moments that arise in our over-escalated world.

1. EQ: Foster your emotional intelligence 

EQ is one of the most important traits we can have as a leader. We’re all human, with unique strengths, weaknesses and feelings. It’s important to remember that we all have bad days, and this can affect performance and attitude.

A bad day can turn into a good one.

Give your employees a little leeway when they’re having a tough day and guide them toward a more calm and productive head space. A habitually bad attitude is one thing, but a few honest mistakes are understandable. Actually, it can even be an opportunity to bring your team closer — show them you're empathetic and offer positive encouragement.

Remember: Kindness is not weakness. When there are issues, you need to address them. Just don't be abusive or explosive. Strength is about calmly navigating problems with a focus on solutions and respect.

2. “I hear you…”

Good listening is basically a superpower. It gives people what they want the most: to be heard and understood. Ask questions and really listen; don’t just wait for a space to reply. It’s OK to let a thought go; it will come back if you need it. It’s more important to listen to what they’re saying and be curious about their point of view.

During a tense conversation, respond with a comment like “I hear you,” and show you're listening by practicing open and positive non-verbal cues. Guide your audience toward a calmer resolution — use your energy like a tool, not a weapon. This is the path to mutual understanding, respect and compromise.

Here’s a video snippet from our training where Marie Freschl, a licensed therapist, briefly walks through this de-escalation technique.

Key takeaways:

  • Actively listen and give non-verbal cues that show you’re paying attention.
  • Keep your energy calm; don’t interrupt and don’t respond aggressively.
  • Tell them that you hear them and show them you’re taking it seriously. Say something like, “I hear that you’re frustrated and I understand.”
  • Make sure the person feels supported. Be mindful of your tone of voice and body language. If you stay in an understanding and empathetic tone, you’ll get a better response.

3. The pause button

In order to stay calm, it’s important to take a couple of deep breaths during any escalating conversation. Taking a quick pause during rising tension is the difference between reacting quickly and emotionally or collecting your thoughts and presenting a reasonable response.

Pro tip: This isn't just new-age hippie thinking. The Navy Seals, America's elite military force, practice simple breathing techniques to help their soldiers stay calm and safe. If it works in a war-zone, it can work in your restaurant.

4. Words that matter

Connect with your audience by using words that move the conversation along productively. For example:

  • Instead of saying “Can you do me a favor,” say “I need your help.” People like to feel needed, and then they’re more likely to help.
  • Try saying “‘You’re right!” instead of “I know!” It makes your teammates feel smart instead of making you look like a know-it-all.
  • Instead of “Sorry for the wait,” say “Thank you for your patience.” Be thankful, not sorry!
  • If someone is upset or angry, try saying “That’s completely understandable.” Give people some common ground to shift their emotions more positively.

We understand there’s an occasional “Karen” roaming around out there, and we’ve watched our teammates deflect verbal abuse from customers who are being ridiculous. As a leader, know that it is our job to inject a strong, calm, positive energy into the workplace, and that goes for all interactions — both employees and guests.

Practice using these de-escalation techniques. Try one today and one tomorrow and you’ll see people respond positively. At ARROW UP TRAINING, we’re all about human development. We  know that a little forward progress each day can turn into big results. So let's challenge ourselves to drive a more empathetic tone with your squad, bring that positive energy and be a strong supportive leader.

Being positive in a negative situation is not naive. It’s leadership.


Jason Berkowitz is the founder of ARROW UP Training, innovative online training for the hospitality industry. Jason’s first job was as a 14-year-old fast-food cashier. Today he’s built teams large and small from fast casual to Michelin stars. He’s the author of Please Don’t Sleep With The Host.”

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