Forum teaches calming, de-escalation

Comments accentuate points of conflict

PORT TOWNSEND — Morning chamber workshops aren’t typically the stuff of controversy. But Tuesday’s session turned The Chamber of Jefferson County’s social media pages into a yelling contest, executive director Arlene Alen said.

The topic: de-escalation for businesses dealing with countywide health mandates.

“Our Facebook page is still blowing up,” Alen said Tuesday afternoon.

There were anti- and pro-vaccination commenters, name-calling, “crazy stuff.”

The free online program, open to viewers in Clallam and Jefferson counties, was presented by Jud Haynes, the Port Townsend Police Department’s mental health navigator.

Before he began, Alen warned participants — 72 of them — that the program, if “hijacked,” might have to be shut down.

Then, over the next 40 minutes, Haynes explained what de-escalation is, how it cools conflict, how conflict affects employees, and how to help those workers after an incident.

To de-escalate a situation is to help the person who’s upset move from a state of high tension to a lower state of stress, Haynes said.

Ways to do that include:

• Be aware of your body language; give the customer space and keep the tone, tempo and volume of your voice even and professional.

• Don’t surround the upset person with several employees, lest the customer feel even more overwhelmed.

• Be personable when providing information about the mandated policy; don’t robotically recite a script.

• To keep yourself calm, breathe in and out slowly. “Square breathing,” inhaling for a count of three to five, pausing, exhaling for the same count and pausing again can help a lot, Haynes said.

Encounters with customers who are highly agitated “are going to be exhausting,” he said. It’s important to acknowledge the stress people are under.

Bosses “can assist by encouraging employees to share their experiences with co-workers,” Haynes said.

Allowing a worker to take a short break after a negative encounter empowers that employee and can alleviate some of the built-up stress, he said. Afterward, focus on what went well and what might be improved next time.

Haynes ran out of time before he could converse with the workshop’s viewers. Alen said another workshop with him is possible; at least two Clallam County attendees expressed interest.

In interviews Tuesday afternoon, Caroline Smith of Olympic Mailing Services and Nicole Hartman of the Clallam Public Utilities District said that, amid the charged atmosphere of recent weeks, they want to learn more about de-escalation.

“Everything is so tense right now,” Smith said.

Hartman added the Clallam PUD building is not open to the public.

“I wanted to see some ideas,” she said. “Who knows what the health orders are going to be when we do open?”

Hartman’s co-workers expect to encounter people who are upset, possibly when utility disconnections resume this fall. She said Haynes’ talk of supporting one’s fellow employees made sense to her.

“Another thing that was interesting this morning,” was his point that, “when you’re engaging someone who’s angry, surrounding them with people makes them feel ganged-up on,” she added.

“I saw this as valuable for everything,” Hartman said: de-escalation helps in many situations, beyond checking a customer’s vaccination card or requiring them to mask up.

James Castell of Castell Insurance in Sequim has also closed his office to in-person visits. It keeps his employees “safer, more confident [and] healthy,” he said in an interview.

“I feel so bad for the restaurant employees,” Castell added, referring to the requirement for checking vaccination cards, which took effect Sept. 4.

He also noted that opponents of such health mandates are “a vocal minority,” capable of making “a heck of a lot of noise.”

“Most of us,” Castell added, “are doing our best, trying to be kind.”

Alen, for her part, said her takeaway from Tuesday is that her community is no bubble of harmony.

“We are a divided city, a divided county,” she said.

“Our job is to help businesses, all businesses,” comply with mandates, since noncompliance can lead to shut doors and lost licenses.

“Whether you agree [with the mandates] isn’t the point,” Alen said.

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or durbanidelapaz@peninsuladailynews.com.

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