How to manage conflict: Lessons in verbal defense

Retail loss prevention and asset protection professionals deal with everything from belligerent customers to petty theft and situations that have the potential to turn violent.  Dave Young, co-founder of Vistelar, believes that the best start to handling any circumstance is a universal greeting: “Hello, my name is ___ .” Leading the “Emerging Leaders Workshop: Verbal Defense and Influence” for a full house at the NRF PROTECT Loss Prevention Conference, Young stressed the importance of treating all customers, including potential perpetrators, with dignity and respect. He believes that the sixth addition to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should be a sympathetic ear, the basic need for someone to “just listen.”

How to calm threatening subjects
  • See the world through their eyes
  • Listen with all senses
  • Ask and explain why
  • Offer options, let them choose
  • Give opportunity to reconsider

Using active listening skills and incorporating a smile, kind voice and positive contact helps to gain the customer’s trust, allowing them to calm down. After introductions, follow the universal greeting with name and affiliation and reason for addressing the customer, Young advises, and ask a relevant question to establish the status quo. Starting a conversation this way inspires non-escalation or de-escalation of a situation.

Young encourages retail loss prevention professionals to “practice until perfect” the following five strategies to manage a potential crisis.

  • Reduce stimulation: When speaking to a potential perpetrator, remember that they may be easily agitated, defensive and unwilling to cooperate. Take steps to produce a relatively calm environment in which to question them. Turn down glaring or blinking lights, and ensure no sudden, loud sounds will produce distractions.
  • Separate and support: If the subject is in a group or surrounded by other customers who may be watching, take the apprehended person away from the group. This may be as simple as walking a few steps away. Help them to tell their story by using language easy for them to understand — don’t use industry jargon.
  • Adapt communication: In order to be understood, an LP officer might have to adapt communication, for example, writing something down or using sign language. Be mindful that English may not be the subject’s first language.
  • Meet unmet needs: A person is more willing to cooperate when they don’t have any pressing needs such as hunger or thirst. A good tactic is to offer food, a drink or even a cigarette before beginning the investigative process. Put them at ease and show them that cooperation is the best way forward.
  • Model calmness: Show professionalism and do not raise your voice, use derogatory language, make sudden movements or show excessive emotions like anger and irritation. Instead of repeating phrases like “Calm down,” say “Can you help me understand what’s happening?”

To be ready to spring into action when the need arises, Young suggests going through these steps in both personal and professional environments. “Practice makes perfect,” he says; he encourages choreographing a response including facial expressions, how to act and the exact words to use. Know the routine so well that “when it’s show time, you go through the process without thinking,” Young concluded.