Best Practices: How drivers can de-escalate stressful situations with passengers

Sept. 22, 2021
The secret is engaging the neocortex, also known as our ‘thinking brain.’

People are stressed; many have trauma and mental illness and some are experiencing homelessness. As these folks board your bus or train, your employees can quickly create connection and a friendly environment to keep things safe.

Our brains take in countless messages every minute throughout the day. Messages come in many forms – a funny look here, a comment someone makes there or a request to wear a mask. Many of these messages elicit a stress response in the survival parts of our brain. Each time the stress response is turned on, stress hormones are pumped into our bloodstream preparing us for action and response to the “threat.” This puts us in a bind, because many of our physiological responses to threats – increased blood pressure and heart rate, for example – are almost certain to escalate a situation on the bus.

To keep things safe and calm, we need to get into our neocortex – or “thinking brain” – which works quite slowly, but is reliable; allowing us to pause, consider and figure out what to do, rather than irrationally reacting. Keeping things calm is often referred to as de-escalation and what it usually entails is connecting with the person in some way that is non-conflictual to get their thinking brain involved.

At the People Incorporated Training Institute, a leading mental health and trauma education organization where I serve as director, we offer courses that cover a variety of tools to quickly help manage stressful situations in a variety of workplaces and settings, including public transit. For example, our training project with Metro Transit in Minneapolis in 2020 and 2021 covered a variety of tools to quickly help manage a stressful situation. We teach transit drivers to respond carefully in tense situations with the following advice:

  • Take a moment to do a quick assessment of your mood and sense your surroundings. If you feel some tension, breathe in slowly and mindfully to exhale any tightness.
  • Even though you may be wearing a mask, smile and make a connection with eye contact.
  • Although it doesn’t sound like much, a pause is an important tool because it gives you a chance to stop and think about the next best thing to say or do. As you pause to observe, aim to listen and thoughtfully respond instead of reacting with defensiveness or judgement. Listening to understand will help keep a situation calm and avoid misunderstandings. The tool of active listening helps reflect and validate what we’re hearing to build rapport and mutual respect. Reflecting a simple validation like, “it sounds like you’re having a rough day,” or “it’s a lot to deal with,” shows you understand what the other person is saying.
  • When people are emotional, instead of telling them to “calm down,” tell them you can see they’re upset and ask them what they need. A little human kindness or compassion goes a long way with a simple show of concern like “how’s it going?” or “what do you need?” These connecting questions are a tool to switch on the person’s thinking brain. In a way, the content of the question is not that important, it’s just a connector.
  • Using a respectful “please” when asking for cooperation can keep a tense situation from escalating. Modeling that common courtesy shows we are professionals and deserve respect in return.

Using tools like friendly eye contact, a pause for awareness, reflective listening and asking with a “please” will help reduce tension in situations and create the non-threatening environment human brains are looking for, even if they don’t know it.


Russ Turner is director of the People Incorporated Training Institute. During his 14-year tenure he has developed and taught a curriculum of training classes and workshops in a wide variety of subjects related to behavioral health from crisis de-escalation to motivational interviewing.