It was 9:00 pm in the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois.
The only employees were me and Chris, who was brand new.
It was a quiet night with a relatively low number of residents in the shelter (“only” 150 or so).
A resident (a middle-aged Hispanic man with a handlebar mustache) approached Chris and me, clearly agitated. Before I could ask what the issue was, he blurted out “Old man Jenkins is drunk and swinging on people.”
The man told us where we could find Mr. Jenkins. Honestly, though, by that point we could hear him shouting.
As we approached the source of the yelling, I told Chris that we wanted Mr. Jenkins to go to bed if possible. I asked Chris to take the lead while I was his backup.
We found Mr. Jenkins in a poorly lit bathroom with four stalls and three sinks. Mr. Jenkins—who looks a bit like an older, drunker, version of Mr. Rogers—was yelling at a younger man who pretended not to hear while brushing his teeth.
Chris approached and the conversation started like this:
Chris: Mr. Jenkins, you have to go to bed now.
Mr. Jenkins: I don’t have to do sh*t. I’m a grown a** man. You ain’t my mother. You can’t tell me what to do!
Chris: Sir, you have to go to bed. Now!
Within seconds Chris and Mr. Jenkins were in a shouting match.
I let it go on for a minute before I “tagged in.” I became the lead staff member and Chris became my backup.
My conversation with Mr. Jenkins went like this:
Ryan: Mr. Jenkins, you’re right. You don’t have to go to bed now. But you can’t keep trying to fight people.
Mr. Jenkins: Those a**holes were messing with me!
Ryan: I’m sure they were. So, here’s the thing. At this point you’ve got a choice: go to bed or find somewhere else to sleep tonight. What do you want to do?
Mr. Jenkins: I’ll sleep outside.
Ryan: You don’t have to do that… if you are willing to go to bed now instead.
Mr. Jenkins: No. I’m outa here.
And with that, Mr. Jenkins stumbled towards the exit.
The Multiple-Choice Exam
As human beings, we don’t like being told what we HAVE to do.
We want to have “agency” and decision-making authority over our own lives.
There is a verbal de-escalation tool that taps into this human need.
It’s called “The Multiple-Choice Exam.”
• DO NOT: Tell people what they have to do.
• DO: Give people options, all of which you can agree to. Then it is their decision how to proceed.
The beauty of this tool is that they get to choose their own path, while you get to ensure that it is one of the paths you can agree to. It is a win-win.
This can be used in a lot of settings:
• “Would you rather eat that food outside or toss it?”
• “Would rather call that person back or take your phone call in another room?”
• “Would you rather wear headphones or listen to the music later?”
It can even be used in more serious situations:
• “Would you like to leave now, or would you like to wait for the police to arrive and they’ll ask you to leave?”
The Multiple-Choice Exam is verbal de-escalation 101.
Any time you can give options—which is almost always—you should.
If you want to learn more verbal de-escalation tools, this month’s live training teaches five basic verbal tools and five advanced verbal tools.
Have a fantastic week!