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Facilitation Quick Tip: The De-Escalation Line Dance

Facilitation Quick Tip: The De-Escalation Line Dance

By BA Laris, MPH | April 17, 2018
Program Manager, ETR

In a recent training on Crisis De-Escalation, the simplest activity we did turned out to be the most effective at helping participants think about how to “take it down a notch.” The De-escalation Line Dance is a quick, fun and powerful activity that gets participants talking about the obvious and subtle messages we send—and receive—in crisis situations.

Title: The De-Escalation Line Dance

Setting: In-person training event

Time: 15-20 minutes


  1. Provide an experiential activity in trainings about crisis management and crisis de-escalation that can help participants understand some of the dynamics of these situations.
  2. Build awareness of both obvious and subtle messages sent by people in crisis situations through body language, tone of voice and responsiveness.
  3. Practice skills that will be useful in de-escalating a crisis situation.

Best Used: In a training situation exploring aggression, crisis, de-escalation. We recommend doing the activity before a break. The activity shifts people’s energy and they may need a few minutes to return to the large group training mode.

Note: With very large groups, you may need to split up into smaller groups and use multiple areas of the training space to give people enough room to experience the activity. The debrief can then happen in both the small and large group.

Background Review:

Explain to participants: The goal of de-escalation is to build rapid rapport and a sense of connectedness with an agitated person in order to reduce the likelihood of escalation to physical violence. This sense of connectedness is established through the use of specific verbal, psychological, and nonverbal techniques that emphasize controlling one’s own emotional response to threat while guiding communication.

This activity will give everyone a chance to experience and reflect upon their reactions in the presence of someone who is behaving in a potentially aggressive manner. Understanding these dynamics now can help you maintain your composure and work more effectively in an actual crisis situation.

Brainstorm with participants: What are some of the body language signs that suggest someone is agitated and escalating towards physical violence? (You might ask them to think about instances where they’ve dealt with an aggressive client or student.)

Write down the suggested possibilities on chart paper. These might include:

  • Moving aggressively or quickly
  • Clenching fists
  • Frowning, grimacing
  • Stomping
  • Large motions with arms
  • Crying
  • Expressionless
  • Cursing
  • Yelling

Now ask: What are some of the body language signs that suggest someone is not aggressive, and is prepared to de-escalate violence?

Write down the suggested possibilities on chart paper. These might include:

  • Moving calmly and slowly
  • Standing or moving in a centered, aligned way (not leaning forward)
  • Holding hands in an open position at sides
  • Having a neutral expression on face, or a slight smile
  • Nodding gently

Ask participants to keep these ideas in mind for the upcoming activity.


  1. Trigger warning. Acknowledge that this activity asks participants to reflect on their thoughts and feelings in a situation with someone who may be escalating into violence. Emphasize that this has been an illuminating and meaningful activity in other trainings and participants have found it quite powerful. However, if anyone is not completely comfortable with the activity once it’s been explained it, they may pass.
  2. Pair up. Ask participants to pair up and then stand facing each other with about 6-8 feet of distance between partners. All of the pairs will be standing in two parallel lines, like line dance partners.
  3. Explain the activity. Tell participants that they will each take a turn acting aggressively, and each will have a turn noticing their reactions to the aggression. The first partner will move towards the second using some of the aggressive body language the group just described. If they wish, they can make mildly aggressive sounds (grunting, soft growling), but because we're in a group training session, ask everyone to keep it "symbolic" rather than highly expressive. The second partner will stay in place and notice their own physical responses. Then partners will switch roles.

Remember that everyone will be acting in this aggressive role. There will be no physical contact and no real aggression.

  1. Start the activity. Instruct Partner 1 to move towards Partner 2 using some of the negative body language suggesting escalation.

Instruct Partner 2 to remain stationary and observe and notice their physical responses to their partner’s movements.

Have Partner 1 return to the original position. Ask everyone to take a moment to quietly reflect on that experience. After a moment, ask everyone to take a deep breath and center themselves for the next round.

Have partners switch roles so the second person walks using negative body language and the first partner observes their own physical reaction.

  1. Explore responses to de-escalation. Return to the original position. Explain that for the next round, one partner will walk towards the other using positive body language suggesting de-escalation. The stationary partner will observe and notice their physiological response. Then they will switch roles and repeat.

Have partners repeat both rounds of the activity in the de-escalation mode.

  1. Debrief. Ask participants to talk about what they noticed in themselves when they were approached in an aggressive or non-aggressive way. Suggested questions:
  • What was it like to stand still and simply notice your reactions in the face of someone’s aggressive movements?
  • What was it like to act in the aggressive role?
  • How was the de-escalating part of the activity different?
  • How does this activity help you think about your own body language and reactions and what they communicate in an escalating environment?

Remind participants that the emphasis on physiologic responses helps us all understand that these are powerful reactions that we do fully control. When we understand our physiologic responses, we can make more conscious choices about our behavior that can help de-escalate crisis situations.

  1. Review skills for de-escalation. Explain that de-escalation begins with our own personal assessment of how we are communicating in the situation. Review six strategies to use:
  1. Act calm
  2. Use non-verbal skills
  3. Reassure yourself
  4. Position yourself for safety
  5. Know where and how to get support
  6. Know your hot buttons


  1. Debrief de-escalation skills. Ask participants to identify some of the ways they used these skills in the activity.
  2. Take a break. Before releasing the group for the break, acknowledge that some participants may have had powerful responses to this activity. Suggest everyone get some fresh air during the break (if possible), take a short walk, do some stretches or connect in a positive way with one of their co-trainees. Let them know you’re available to talk if anyone wants to discuss the activity further.


BA Laris is a Research Associate at ETR. She can be reached at




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