Non-verbal communication that actually escalates a situation. It happens much more often than you would think.  The ability to communicate by body language and tone of voice goes back to the cave man days.

In those earliest days of early man, before languages and alphabets and writing was established, communication was done with facial expressions, grunts and groans and animated gesturing.  And in those earliest days mankind developed the ability to read body language and tone of voice and to this day we pick up on those cues much more readily and probably much more accurately than with spoken words.

We all entered this world and immediately developed non-verbal communication with our parents.  We learned to cry when we wanted to be fed or changed, we learned to smile and coo and giggle and laugh while interacting with our parents.  As we grew and developed, we learned to make a scowl or frown or roll our eyes with displeasure, and on and on.  To this day we still communicate with the world around us with non-verbals, such as hugs and kisses and pats on the back for friends and family.

The trick and challenge is to control those automatic non-verbal communication that our body expresses, especially when dealing with some level of stress.  Without controlling certain automatic body language or tone of voice expressions, we may end up escalating a situation without realizing it was OUR fault for mishandling a situation.  How did it feel the last time you were trying to communicate with someone about a problem you were dealing with and you caught them rolling their eyes slightly?  Didn’t that crush you and make you about want to explode?

When you are in a service oriented career where you are dealing with the public, such as a police officer, it is highly critical that you learn how to communicate with non-verbals, and recognize how your unconscious non-verbals may be effecting the people and situation around you.  Take a look at the following photograph:

Body language - Non-verbal communication that actually escalates a situation

What does the folded arms and cocked over head say?

I am a retired police officer, and I now teach and conduct training in Conflict De-escalation with an emphasis on dynamic, realistic scenarios.  One of my role players came upon this situation at the mall and he immediately keyed in on the displayed body language.  The subject was running one of those kiosk stands at the mall, and there was a small family off to the side that must have been part of what the situation was.  My friend took a photo for me and told me that in the few moments he observed the situation it appeared to be escalating, just based on the animated gesturing and increasing loud tone of voice of the subject, who kept looking over at the officer with the folded arms and cocked over head.

The contact officer has good form and positioning, he appears to have a good reactionary gap, his hands are in a non-aggressive position by the front of his belt, yet they are in position to react and respond to any assault from the subject.  He is facing the subject, showing that he is paying attention and listening to the subject.

The cover officer is displaying contempt, lack of interest, disbelief, and complete lack of empathy and compassion.  I have some issue with the proximity of the cover officer for this particular situation, there is a sense of crowding the subject from the photo, which is not going to help the situation.  But I’m going to just go over the cover officer’s non-verbal communication, his body language.

There is only one of two things happening here;  either the officer knew exactly what he was doing and did not care whether or not he was expressing his thoughts and emotions, or he actually cared about what was going on and was totally oblivious to the message his body was expressing.  Either way, the result seemed to be an escalation of the subject’s demeanor and behavior, as observed and described by my friend.

I’m not saying I never felt incredulous with some of the people I dealt with, but I sure as heck tried very hard not to express it by body language or tone of voice because, believe me, I have seen non-verbal communication blow up a situation!  My friend who observed part of this situation at the mall stated he felt the whole thing was going to blow up as he walked away.  My friend said that as the subject was talking to the contact officer he kept glancing over to the tough-guy officer, and was clearly agitated by the posture and demeanor of the cover officer.  The cover officer really should have either changed his posture or stood further away, may be out of peripheral view,  so that the subject’s attention remained on the contact officer, as it should have been.

Newly minted, young rookie officers tend to come across way too strong right off the bat, regardless if the situation does not call for that tough, all-business, nothing-but-the-facts demeanor and attitude.  Not much effort is made to educate officers on how to be in control and in charge without coming across like a jerk, to be aware of what their non-verbal signals are and how it may be effecting the situation they are entering.

But it isn’t just police officers, I just happen to be using this one photo snap shot of a recent incident as a teaching point.  I have seen people in all walks of life, security guards, nurses, doctors, lawyers, supervisors, teachers, business owners, and so on and so on, who do and say things without realizing how their non-verbal signals may actually be escalating a situation.  There are people who have a natural knack with talking to people, of calming them down, of getting them to talk and share, and I guarantee you that they do not stand there with their arms folded and head cocked over during the crisis moment, or during the heat of the moment.  The good news is these body language awareness skills can be taught.

If you still doubt how critical body language and tone of voice is, consider the last time you had an argument with your significant other, and how it may have been completely avoided if one or both of you had simply used a different tone of voice.  Or had used a different body posture.

People need to be aware of their ACE, Appearance (Body language), Communication (Tone of voice, what is said, how it is said), and Engagement (Active reflective listening, be in the moment), or risk having a situation blow up in their face.


Check my webpage for Conflict De-escalation Training workshops, under the Events tab –


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