Onboard De-Escalation

Fishermen work in a stress-rich environment. There’s trip planning and preparation, forecasting weather and sea conditions and risk of mechanical failure. There’s business issues too—fish prices, inflation, making delivery schedules, managing crew, debt and regulatory agencies, fish management schemes and fish stock conditions. There are plenty of triggers to cause agitation on a vessel.

Agitation is actually an acute behavioral emergency that requires immediate intervention. Stress can lead to an explosion of verbal, mental or physical abuse that can take the form of bullying, aggression or hostility.

In the physical and mentally demanding environment of fishing, getting along on the vessel is a highly valued skill. There isn’t an option to just walk out the door and go home while at sea.

This can be a challenge and stressor that can lead to escalation in emotions resulting in a crisis onboard. Frequent agitation with no de-escalation skills available also can lead to both acute and chronic physical and mental health problems. The following are some guidelines to help your crewmates have a more productive trip.

The four primary goals of de-escalation are:

1. Ensuring the safety of everyone.

2. Helping the agitated person manage their emotions and regaining control of their behavior.

3. Avoiding the use of physical restraint when possible.

4. Avoiding coercive interventions that escalate the agitation. 

The 10 techniques of de-escalation are:

1. Maintaining a safe space – at least two arm lengths if possible, on a vessel. Avoid the agitated person or you being cornered or trapped in a space. 

2. Don’t provoke the person. You can’t calm someone else down if you’re not calm yourself. Be aware of your body language – no folded arms, clenched/concealed hands or staring. Keep the tone of your voice calm, evenly spaced with plenty of room for them to get their message to you. In an emotionally charged conversation, 93 percent of the message is in the body language and tone of the speaker.

3. Establish verbal contact one-on-one. Clear the space of extra people if possible. Speak calmly and politely. The goal, again, is to mitigate the issue for the safety of all. 

4. Be concise. Keep the message clear and simple. Use short, easy sentences and vocabulary. Give time for the person to think and respond. Repeat key information—requests, options, limitations.

5. Identify their wants, needs and expectations and help them to resolve or identify options to help regain composure. Respond with empathy, compassion, trust and rapport even if expectations are unrealistic.

6. Listen closely and give verbal and physical indications that you hear their concerns. Repeat key information back to the person: “I hear and understand what you are saying that you’re unhappy about or need.”

7. Agree to disagree, but acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Find common ground and areas of agreement. 

8. Lay down the law and set clear limits. Calmly and clearly in a factual, but non-threatening way, state the consequences of their behavior or their actions. State that mutual respect is needed for resolution to take place.

9. Offer choices and optimism that are realistic choices and alternatives to violence. Empower them to de-escalate. Offer small gestures, coffee, comfort, food; focus on working on mutually beneficial solutions.

10. Debrief with others after the incident on what worked and what didn’t to defuse the situation. Talk about ways and techniques to defuse other similar situations in the future and ways to improve, and even better, prevent agitation.

If you are the decision maker on the vessel, you have an important role in establishing the type of work environment you want. That includes not just the physical work and tasks you assign crew, but also the emotional environment.

The 10 steps in de-escalation are useful techniques to prevent a situation from evolving into a crisis.

There’s nothing better than a fun, productive crew that has each other’s backs: it eases the hard work and isolation that is inherent onboard. Mental health on a vessel is just as important as your crew’s physical health.

If a crew member is agitated or experiencing a crisis, try these steps to de-escalate so you can get back to turning that gear around. 

The Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) has a mission is to reduce injury and death in the marine and freshwater environment through education and training provided by a network of marine safety instructors. The Sitka, Alaska-based organization has been offering marine safety training to commercial fishermen and thousands of other mariners since 1985.

More information on marine safety topics can be found at www.amsea.org