When it comes to de-escalating a tense situation, Northeastern Police Department Sgt. John Farrell keeps this phrase in mind: “Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down.”
And, on any campus with thousands of people under the stress of publishing new research, taking exams, and juggling social events, being able to calmly diffuse a heated situation can be crucial.
Then again, so is knowing that CPR should be done to the tempo of The Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive; or that keeping credit cards and IDs in a pouch on a phone case is a great way to lose a lot of valuable information all at once on the T.
All of this was covered at Northeastern’s inaugural Preparedness Day, a daylong series of workshops and training exercises designed to prepare students, faculty, and staff for a variety of emergency and stressful situations.
Farrell addressed the audience at the Curry Student Center on de-fusing stressed out students or others during a session on security awareness training.
It was advice that resonated with Jennifer Love, who has taught engineering at Northeastern for more than a decade, and said she’d been “looking forward to something like this for a long time.
“I’ve had situations where I’ve encountered students who were distraught about something, so having the training to know how to safely handle and de-escalate the room is really important,” said Love, associate academic specialist in the College of Engineering.
Love’s first session of the day was run by Farrell and NUPD officer Anika Crutchfield, who offered instructions on how best to calm down a heated situation. What it comes down to is empathy, and a calm demeanor.
“To de-escalate the emotions of another person, that person has to be willing, and we have to be willing, to communicate,” Farrell said. “The best thing we can do is to listen, and listen attentively.”
The officers offered as an example a student who is upset about receiving a poor grade on an assignment. Perhaps that student starts to get agitated, then irate, demanding to see the professor who assigned the grade.
“Nonverbal cues communicate so much in these situations,” Farrell said, instructing those in the workshop to be mindful of their facial expressions, standing in a nonthreatening way, and giving the agitated person enough space that he or she doesn’t feel caged.
Only after addressing the situation calmly in a nonverbal way should you consider speaking, Farrell said.
“Speak slowly, deliberately, and clearly,” Farrell said. He added a sentiment that NUPD Chief Michael Davis presented to the department during his first day on the job. “Chief Davis said, ‘Start with the premise that the person in front of you has equal and intrinsic value as everyone else.’ That goes a long way,” Farrell said.
Elsewhere in Curry, Rita Ghilani, a representative from behavioral health provider E4Health led a workshop on becoming more resilient in stressful day-to-day situations.
Going around the room, attendees described the reasons they were looking for help in handling high-stress scenarios. Those reasons included everything from a pregnant soon-to-be mother seeking to build a good foundation for handling stress, to a man whose aging parents were increasingly requiring more hands-on care, to a student about to take the bar exam.
One of the keys to being resilient in the face of such taxing situations is recognizing and calling upon our individual strengths, the attendees learned, whether that’s finding silver linings, being open and honest about how we’re feeling, or being empathetic. Whatever the strength is, use it.
“Humans are heartier than we give ourselves credit for,” Ghilani said.