Posted By Jacob Jans, Editor

Handling Hostile Confrontations

Written by L.J. Millard

On Mystery Shop Forum, there has been some discussion of shoppers finding themselves in some angry and even dangerous confrontations. As a police officer and crisis-hostage negotiator, I utilized some specific techniques to de-escalate and extract myself from hostile situations on a daily basis. I taught fellow officers as well as other professionals these techniques and will pass a few of them on to you here.

The best way to handle a hostile situation is to be prepared for it no matter how unlikely it seems that someone would react in that manner. It starts with the moment you walk in the door and announce your intentions or when you reveal yourself as the evaluator. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to all of these situations as “the reveal”. If you are inside a business, pay attention to where you position yourself before the reveal. Give yourself an out by putting your back to the door and do not allow yourself to become cornered.

Your demeanor when you introduce yourself can set the tone for the rest of the interaction. Smile, reach out to shake the other person’s hand and tell them your first name (real or fake doesn’t matter). Project a confident and positive attitude and tell them you will be out of their way as quickly as possible or whatever you feel comfortable saying to put them at ease. Next, say whatever your guidelines require, and immediately turn and leave property if you’re finished or walk off and start your audit. Walking away will often prevent any potential argument.

If you’re met with hostility anyway, shift into crisis negotiator mode and remember the 4 L’s:

  • Let them speak
  • Listen actively
  • Lower voice
  • Last word


Often, the other person just wants to be heard. Let them vent unless it becomes abusive. At any time that you feel the situation has become dangerous to you, utilize that door that you put at your back, turn and leave without another word. If it seems they are just venting or want to argue, listen “actively”. That means being careful of using trigger words and utilizing Active Listening Techniques such as:

Use “I” Messages. Instead of saying, “you need to stop yelling at me,” try saying, “I am having trouble understanding you through the shouting. I’d appreciate it if we could keep it more low-key.”

Don’t say, “I understand how you feel”. They’ll tell you that no, you don’t understand anything about them. Instead, paraphrase what they have said. “So what you’re saying is the last auditor gave you a bad report that you felt was unfair and that I’m here to see how many negative things I can put on your report today?”

Don’t tell them to calm down. That almost always escalates the situation and results in the other person yelling even louder. They’ll say that they don’t want you telling them what to do, how to act, etc. Instead, YOU calm down. This leads us to the next L.

Lower your voice. If someone is yelling, we naturally want to be heard over their voice, so we raise ours higher. The other person raises up a decibel or so and it continues to escalate. Sometimes, by lowering your voice to almost a whisper, you cause the other person to quiet down so that they can hear you. This technique works for me about 60% of the time and is usually worth a try. Once their volume is down, it usually pulls their anger down a little with it.

So about that last “L”? One of the reasons situations escalate is because each side wants to have the last word. If you don’t believe that, take a look at some of the longer threads in the forum. Whenever someone says something that we disagree with, it’s hard NOT to say something back especially when they are so wrong! Let them have the last word because you know what? You actually will have the last word after all – in your report. Keep that in the back of your mind at all times, and it will help keep your own emotions in check.

When faced with hostility, it’s hard not to react emotionally when we feel attacked. It has always helped me to remember that I shouldn’t take it personally when someone was rude or aggressive with me. They don’t know me. It was the uniform they were reacting to. It’s the same in this business. It’s not you they are upset with, it’s the clipboard.

Stay safe.

Copyright L.J. Millard


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