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Body Language Check: How negative body language and attitude can put you in danger

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Body Language Check: How negative body language and attitude can put you in danger


What we say in nonverbal communication such as our eyes, posture and hand placement can betray the words we choose to share with others. One of my favorite examples of this is the phrase used by so many “I’m fine”. Depending on tone, posture and many variables that dreaded phrase can mean any number of different things and often means that person is not fine.

While working private security in the busiest Emergency Room on the west coast, I worked with a gentleman younger than myself at the time who was fresh out of the military and eager to prove himself with in a law enforcement setting. For our purposes we will call him Officer Young Buck. Any time Officer Young Buck had an opportunity to share his military experience and show off his manliness he would.

As an Instructor for our De-escalation and Assault Prevention classes I had the joy of having Officer Young Buck in my class. I did my best to reign in his stories about getting into brawls on and off base while serving and explain the responsibilities of our Private Security roles and how they were different from the military. Unfortunately, at the time I did not posses the skills to get through to Officer Young Buck.

As Security, our job was to assist Law Enforcement to search new patients for weapons and contraband as well as keep the Hospital Nurses, Doctors and Mental Health staff safe. One night shift Officer Young Buck and I were working in the emergency room when a local Sheriff brought in a veteran who was dealing with not only severe PTSD but also had illegal narcotics and alcohol in his system. This can be an extremely dangerous combination and a calm, cool head as well as a calm demeanor are the best ways to enter this type of call for service.

Unfortunately, Officer Young Buck was all too eager to impress the Sheriff that night and began barking orders at the patient who had been brought in. All too quickly, the patient (let’s call him Henry) who was a very large male and who had been docile and compliant up until this point felt he had been challenged. Henry immediately became enraged and red-faced yelling at Officer Young Buck who now deflated like a balloon. As a result of the yelling, several other male staff showed up and what ensued reminded me of something I have seen on the National Geographic Channel between primates.

At this point the Sheriff saw himself out as Henry was now in our custody. As Henry became increasingly more agitated with the nearly all male staff telling him to “calm down”, “just do what you’re told” and “I am a veteran to you know”. FInally, Henry lost it and literally ripped his tshirt in half starting at his chest like the Hulk from Marvel comics. Turns out, part of Henry’s PTSD came from an IED or incendiary device in the middle east. Because of this, Henry’s chest and back were covered scars many of which appeared to be burn and shrapnel marks. He was now screaming and crying, slamming his fists against the walls of the psychiatric room the Sheriff had escorted him to so he could get help.


At this point, all staff huddled together to determine the next best option for Henry. The female Mental Health Evaluator determined she was not comfortable entering the room and the physician wanted to medicate. We determined it was worth one more shot before giving sedation to talk Henry down, and guess who was nominated? That’s right the 5’1 135lb female and de-escalation instructor, me!

I had all the male staff stand as far away from the room as I could safely. (Henry was lawfully detained at this time so if he bolted past me, staff were in place to restrain him) While Henry was still yelling and banging on the walls, I unlocked his secured door, opened it wide and strolled right past him to a chair in the corner and sat down. Henry stopped screaming and banging, maybe a little shocked at this new tactic, and looked right at me. I sat in his chair, body language purposefully relaxed and nonchalant and when I finally had his eyes locked in on mine, I said in a calm, quiet and understand way “Henry, sounds like you’ve had a really bad day. Want to talk about it?”

I was not some big bad ex special forces, military secret squirrel delta force recon member who had something to prove. I wasn’t puffing my chest up or barking orders. I just wanted to help people and in that moment my voice, tone and body language conveyed that message to Henry. Immediately, you could see him start to relax as he sat across from me. Utilizing mirroring techniques to help him feel more comfortable with me, I matched his body language and some of his speech patterns. We talked about how the day started and how his PTSD progressed that day. To help dull the feelings he had started drinking and once he started feeling the effects of the alcohol he had used meth to keep him moving. It had indeed, been a very hard day for Henry so to help him feel better, I made Officer Young Buck get him a turkey sandwich and some orange juice. Henry really enjoyed that.

My body language remained calm with Henry until both him and staff were ready to work together to get Henry home safely and get him the help he needed. Henry still held a bit of a grudge towards Officer Young Buck however after watching this unfold, Officer Young Buck’s ego and swagger had dissipated. Following the incident with Henry, Officer Young Buck was able to recognize that his body language exuded a challenging and posturing attitude. I am happy to report that with practice, Officer Young Buck changed his ways while on the job and changed his viewpoint on treating all people with respect and dignity. Recognizing that what we say with our body is sometimes clearer to others then what we say with our words.


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