The “tactical communications” concept known as Verbal Judo was created by the late George Thompson PhD, the founder of the Verbal Judo Institute, and the author of the 1993 book Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion. His techniques for high-risk conversations when people are angry have been taught to police officers, military members, and security officers around the world.
Thompson’s approach to training was to remind the class participants that no matter who they had to deal with in stressful field communications situations:
- All cultures want to be treated with dignity and respect;
- All people would rather be asked than told what to do;
- All people want to know why they are asked or told to do something;
- All people would rather have options than threats; and
- All people want a second chance to make matters right.
He coined a reminder acronym for all types of verbal communication called LEAPS (listen, empathize, ask, paraphrase, summarize), which is useful in getting the other person to know that you are genuinely listening to him or her (and not just waiting for him or her to stop talking). This approach can work as a low- to high-risk communications training tool for security officers.
Make careful and appropriate eye contact; turn toward the other person; close the distance between you and the other person to build a sense of rapport (using good security officer safety techniques and not approaching violent or threatening people too closely until you have read the situation).
Use validating statements with angry people, like, “I understand; I’m sorry that happened to you; let’s figure out what we can do together to make this work; I can see you’re upset; tell me what I can do for you; you could be right; I know your time is valuable and I’m not trying to waste your time; I want to hear what you have to say; let me take some notes.”
Here, Thompson would suggest we ask more open-ended questions, designed to get the angry person to tell his or her story in more detail. In security situations, we’re often used to asking a lot of yes-no questions, which may save time but they don’t give the other person much chance to vent or make his or her requests, complaints, or concerns known. Instead of asking, “Did you show your employee ID card to the guard at the gate? Did you do what he or she asked you to do?” ask, “After you showed your employee ID card to the guard at the gate, then what happened next? What did he or she say you needed to do?”
Accurately repeating back what an angry or frustrated person has said to you can go a long way toward lowering the emotional temperature of the conversation by demonstrating that you really were listening. If you’ve paraphrased the other person correctly (e.g., “What I hear you saying is …” or “I think I understood you to say … Is that correct?”), it can help him or her feel heard, and it builds on the empathy step noted above.
It can help angry people to feel calmer—without ever saying “Calm down!” to them, which rarely works—by “walking and talking”: escorting them carefully from the facility and toward the exit doors, as you continue to listen and engage.
The Verbal Judo concept combines both the need for customer service awareness, even with angry or threatening people; active, engaged listening techniques; and all with a focus on the personal security of the communicator.