We Went to De-escalation Training: Here’s Everything We Learned


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If you work in the service industry, you have likely dealt with disorderly customers. Customer behaviors can range from mildly annoying to potentially dangerous, and knowing how to handle situations safely and thoughtfully is essential, particularly in public spaces with lots of people like coffee shops. 

Earlier this year, we reported on a new class from coffee consultant and 2014 United States Barista Champion Laila Ghambari and coffee and human resources professional Eric J. Grimm on de-escalating tense situations within coffee shops. The duo runs two versions of the class: an asynchronous course, led by Ghambari, that people can take at any time solo or with their entire staff, and a monthly live course, taught by Grimm, that’s two hours long and involves direct instruction and interactive participation. 

De-escalation training can give people tools to diffuse concerning behaviors and actions and prevent conflict from worsening. Ghambari and Grimm focus specifically on issues baristas and cafe owners deal with within retail spaces. 

“The past four years have been especially trying for people working in public-facing service roles,” Grimm said. “The intensity of our interactions with a wide range of people who come into coffee shops has increased, and those interactions are often made worse by the fact that everyone working in coffee shops, from baristas to managers to owners, likely lacks the tools to quickly and successfully work through escalated scenarios.”

We decided to attend one of Grimm’s monthly sessions to get a better understanding of how to work through those scenarios—here’s everything we learned: 

Starting From Within

The de-escalation training is a comprehensive course that caters to all staff levels, from hourly barista staff to owners and operators. It is designed to help attendees effectively manage a variety of stressful situations while maintaining a calm and safe environment. The training also highlights the distinct responsibilities of baristas, managers, and owners, ensuring a clear understanding of each role’s contribution to de-escalation.

The class opens with a basic introduction to why coffee shops need de-escalation tactics: When someone is in an escalated state, they are often stressed out, overwhelmed, or in crisis, which could lead to sudden decision-making that could harm themselves or others. De-escalation tactics attempt to diffuse situations and keep people safe. 

The great thing about the skills you develop in the class is that they can be broadly applied to difficult interactions with everybody in your life, including colleagues, friends, and family. eric j. grimm

Grimm asked participants what they liked most about working with the public and what they found most challenging. Many class attendees reflected that they liked the community aspect of working in cafes and found the unpredictable nature of human interaction difficult. This small exercise served as a strong anchor, reminding attendees that while the course’s subject matter may be heavy, this training serves to protect and strengthen our local communities. 

Grimm said that de-escalation starts with ensuring staff feel cared for and looked after. They noted that managers and owners are responsible for creating an environment where baristas know how to care for themselves and follow through on systems for employee wellness. They said that de-escalation starts with leaders taking care of staff, and suggested tips like making sure workers have access to water, space for moving their bodies when not behind the bar, and that they can take breaks as needed. 

For owners, Grimm said, this means incorporating employee wellness programs in their operating procedures and setting standards for staff care.

Bringing Down the Temperature

    Grimm then outlined the motivators of stress or anxiety and appropriate responses to a range of situations. For example, if someone is escalating a situation and expressing fear, reassurance can quell fear. 

    Afterward, Grimm presented three different scenarios that could happen in a coffee shop and asked attendees to write down how they’d handle each. The class then broke out into small groups, discussing how to handle each, and came up with solutions to share with the entire class.  

    The group discussion allowed attendees to share tactics they already employ in their workplaces. For example, one attendee who owns a cafe posts maps in her shop instructing people on how to find the closest public bathroom. The maps direct people to the facilities they need without causing a confrontation with customers who might be upset that they cannot access their restrooms.

    Grimm then got into specifics and talked about body language, tone, and what resources workers can provide someone experiencing a mental health crisis. They emphasized how vital self-assessment is when de-escalating a situation: people should take in their surroundings before responding before intervening. By taking a moment to assess rather than rushing into a situation, Grimm said, one might realize they don’t need to step in or they need to ask a coworker to step in instead. 

    I hope that everyone working in a retail coffee setting who takes this class can feel confident in their ability to move through difficult and stressful interactions. eric j. grimm

    “You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Grimm said. By taking a moment to assess a situation, coffee workers can also prepare to have uncomfortable interactions while still being able to treat everyone with dignity and humanity. 

    Grimm ended the class encouragingly and hoped attendees left feeling equipped to de-escalate tense situations. “The great thing about the skills you develop in the class is that they can be broadly applied to difficult interactions with everybody in your life, including colleagues, friends, and family,” Grimm said. “I hope that everyone working in a retail coffee setting who takes this class can feel confident in their ability to move through difficult and stressful interactions.” 

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    Lydia Stolper

    Based in Austin, Texas, with her family, including three cats and a dog, Lydia has loved coffee for as long as she can remember. In her free time, Lydia loves listening to audiobooks, traveling when she can, and visiting as many coffee shops as possible.

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