Tools for Diffusing Conflict with Public Transportation Passengers

Posted on January 11, 2016 by Zach Stone - Also by this author

DART Des Moines
DART Des Moines
Managing hostile events and maneuvering violence is a gamble. There is no silver bullet. Human emotion in times of extreme stress can seem unpredictable. Having to operate a vehicle while managing conflict, only makes things harder. When dealing with triggered, erratic, aggressive or emotionally unstable people, we often naturally choose the least effective method of de-escalation. Fear, anxiety, lack of education around conflict, societal programming, regional and cultural norms, and many other factors create a perfect storm for ineffective and downright dangerous conflict responses.

As a behaviorist, a former crisis interventionist and violence prevention professional and student of martial arts, I am constantly asked by participants in trainings, “How do you manage hostile people, and stay safe?” While they patiently wait for me to teach them some “hardcore” karate chop, I always tell my participants that there is no right or wrong way, just more successful ways to handle people, if they are looking to avoid violence. By acknowledging to my participants that I support physical self-defense in worst case scenarios, I am able to steer them back towards the need to use verbal and non-physical methods to manage their customers and ridership.

In response to the question, I created the CAIRO Method as a quick and easy to learn tool to teach the basics of conflict-control. I have shared this tool with over 5,000 transit operators and their managers. Many share that these are techniques that they normally use to deal with passengers. Nothing works all of the time, but there are industry best practices used by “high-pressure professions,” that dramatically increase your odds of having a successful encounter in the street, depot, on the bus or trolley, or in your home.

Port Authority of Allegheny County
Port Authority of Allegheny County

CAIRO Method™ for Conflict Management

The CAIRO Method has been created utilizing evidence-based best practice in the fields of crisis management, behavioral health, hostage negotiation, law enforcement, corrections, riot control and group facilitation. Some of the most common reasons for people acting out in violence are: feeling cornered, humiliated or ignored. The reason this tool works, is because it was crafted to reduce the emotions and thought processes that lead to violence. While the tools in this method do not have to be used in order, the first two letters dictate the type of tone and attitude one should assume when utilizing the next steps.

C–CALM: When passengers (or transit professionals, as some are willing to admit) are challenged, they often raise their voice level. In response we may be tempted to try to meet them where they are at, out of instinct. Human beings crave balance; physical and voice pattern mirroring is common and can lead to serious escalation in arguments. A neutral voice tone that remains consistent throughout the course of a heated or hostile encounter is very effective for establishing the tonal parameters (boundaries) of the conversation. It also helps you to more successfully survey the situation for other potential threats or escape routes.

*For the adventurous: Attempt to raise your voice to a tone just a few levels below the person who is raising their voice. Once you catch their attention, you can then begin to descend with your voice tone, modeling a natural behavioral de-escalation process.

A–ASSERTIVE: When our voice tone and body language betray us, we often come across as controlling, parental, insecure or aggressive to the people we encounter. Having confidence in your ability to keep your personal environment a safe space sounds very different than annoyance over losing control. An empowered pitch that is coupled with a calm demeanor can be a very stabilizing force in an altercation if the balance has been tilted. Individuals mistakenly use only two speeds in conflict: passive or aggressive. Taking the middle road lets the other person know that you aren’t afraid of them, but you aren’t attacking them either.

I–INFORMING BEHAVIOR: Making statements that let the other party know what’s going on in neutral terms without using “You messages.” “We are moving on now.” “This conversation can be saved for another time.” “You are backing up now.” “This is not the place to have that discussion.” “I am happy to talk with you, but not right now.” “I can’t see out of my mirrors.” “I need you to stand behind the safety line.” “No this bus does not go to X stop, it goes to Y.” “Sir, the fare is X.” “Ma’am that is the company policy, not my personal rule.” “It would be a bad choice to do that.” “I need you to step back from me.” “You are invading my space.” “There are a lot of people around, watching.” “We all want to get out of this alive.” “I am asking you to step outside of the vehicle.” “It is not my intention to disrespect you, I am sorry.” Sometimes giving someone information is enough to de-escalate them.

R–REFLECT/REDIRECT: Reflective listening is a staple of any counselor, facilitator or educators toolbox. Often people just want to be acknowledged and feel like they were heard. Reflective listening allows you to show someone they were heard and move forward with your lesson plan or discussion. The three parts that make up reflective listening are The Starter + The Feeling + The Content. “That must be very frustrating for you because….” “I get that your feeling really disrespected right now because…” “That has be really upsetting for you…” “I that sounds really overwhelming when…” A reflective statement combined with an informing statement would be, “I get that you’re frustrated because you are late for work. I will do my best to get you there safely and on time.”

O-OPENING BEHAVIOR: Opening behavior is asking questions that enable the escalated person to open up and express themselves. Human beings sometimes draw attention to themselves, even negative attention, to be seen. This is a great tool to not only make a person feel acknowledged and visible, but it interrupts violent thought patterns. By asking opening questions you give them the platform to address their feelings and get back in control of themselves. “Is everything OK?” “Do you need something?” “Can I help you?” “What happened here?” “Were you hurt?” “Why were you attacking that person?” “What do you need?” “How are you doing today?” “What do you think about what I’m saying here?” “Where are you trying to get to?” Open questions are more effective when the listener is authentic about asking the other party to open up. Open up your body language to appear more receptive. Unfold your arms, unscrew your face and lean in. It’s often important to explain to operators that safe vehicle operations is paramount, but excellent customer service and conflict management are very related and share many tools. To avoid excessive conversation, pay attention to the road, and manage conflict, is doable, but no easy feat.

Like physical combat, you don’t just throw a punch and stand there. You may use combinations of these actions in succession until you bring the person down to a manageable level. You aren’t necessarily looking to make friends, you are aiming to walk away, or drive away, without a violent confrontation. If all else fails, recognize that stopping and exiting the vehicle to avoid confrontation, calling the authorities or disengaging from a conflict is safer than engaging with someone if you don’t have any combat training. Even individuals who have professional weapons, or hand to hand combat training, regularly get hurt or fail to properly execute adequate skills to come out on top in an escalated conflict. The best fight is the one you don’t have to have.

Zach Stone is co-founder/chief strategy officer for Red Kite Project, a resiliency building firm.

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