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Some customers are angry about masks. Experts give 21 tips to de-escalate public conflicts

July 29, 2020

By Taylor DesOrmeau, originally featured on MLive

A security guard was murdered at a Flint Dollar General after trying to convince customers to wear a mask.

A 77-year-old man was stabbed at a Lansing-area Quality Dairy store over an argument about masking up.

A Delta flight leaving from Detroit had to return to its gate after a pair of guests refused to wear their masks.

People are upset about being required to wear masks. And with Michigan’s new, stricter mask requirement threatening customers with $500 fines and license suspensions for businesses, employees at the stores and restaurants are caught in the crossfire.

“There’s a terrifying trend about acts of aggression that you all are facing every day,” John Harris, owner of JCH Security Consulting, said in a webinar with business owners. “And it’s all about wearing a mask.”

Some disputes are between an employee and an unmasked customer. But others are between an unmasked customer and a masked guest who is trying to shame the person into wearing a mask, said Paul Beasinger, owner of Keene Training and Consulting.

There haven’t been hoards of unruly people, said Amanda Smith, executive vice president of education at the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. But when there have been issues, they’ve been “intense and specific,” she said.

Both the MRLA and Michigan Retailers Association have publicly stated their opposition to Michigan’s mask mandate, fearing it puts employees in danger.

“We can’t thrive as an industry if the doors are locked,” Smith said. “(We) don’t necessarily like the fact that we have to enforce the masks, but that’s what we’ve been asked to do.”

The MRLA and MRA are providing training for business owners across the state, bringing in experts to help devise de-escalation techniques.

“We’ve definitely had a lot of salty people,” said Lucas Grill, proprietor of 1983 Restaurants, which has four eateries in Holland. “(There are) some very upset and frustrated people. It’s difficult for our staff and myself.”

Grill is certified in mediation. He’s had a number of meetings with his managers, teaching them techniques, having them role play and explaining protocol for what to do if matters get out of hand.

Below is a compilation of expert tips from interviews and webinars with Grill, Harris and Beasinger on how to de-escalate a situation. They’re tailored to businesses enforcing the mask mandate, but also apply to other life situations.

Here are 21 tips businesses are learning to help de-escalate difficult guests.

1. Get out in front, making it clear masks must be worn

Be clear about the rules – that masks must be worn in a store at all times or in a restaurant at all times besides when seated to eat or drink.

Put it on social media. Put it on large signs outside and inside your business. Let people know there’s a rule and it will be enforced, the experts said.

At Grill’s restaurants, he lists the specific executive order and adds a link to where people can read more. This alleviates many potential problems, Grill said, because anti-mask wearers might just find another place to go if they know there’s no wiggle room at your business.

“Every single day, probably half of dozen groups see the sign – because it’s extremely obvious – and they keep walking,” Grill said. “A lot of places are doing signs, but what I say is, ‘Is the signage hitting you over the head with a two-by-four or not?'”

2. Local police won’t enforce masks? There’s another route

Some sheriff’s departments in Michigan have publicly stated they don’t plan to enforce Michigan’s mask mandate. But that doesn’t mean businesses are on their own.

Harris and Beasinger recommend proactively reaching out to your police or sheriff to get on the same page in case a situation arises.

“The chances of the police or the sheriff coming and writing someone a ticket for a violation of an executive order may not happen,” Beasinger said. “But I can guarantee you if you’re a small business owner and you call 911 and say ‘We have an unwanted person we want escorted off the property that won’t leave,’ somebody’s going to show up.”

Businesses have the right to refuse service to a customer, Beasinger said, as long as it’s not due to a protected class – like race or gender.

3. Don’t assume how your employees respond to conflict

It’s important to train employees on proper techniques in advance, Harris said.

Role playing is a good idea – have your people simulate a tense situation and see how employees might handle it. It’s better to work out the kinks in training than in a real situation.

4. Choose wisely, when deciding who will handle conflicts

Each shift should have a manager designated to watch for issues and handle them. And that person needs to have certain qualities, Harris said.

“The ideal person to lead these efforts is someone who’s calm and compassionate, patient and respectful, cool-headed, friendly and good-natured,” Harris said. “And they must not be short-tempered.”

5. Don’t debate

The first four tips dealt with proactive measures. Now, we’re onto tips for once a situation starts to arise.

When a customer begins to protest wearing a mask, it can easily turn into a political debate. Don’t let that happen, Harris said.

You can’t reason with an angry person, Harris said, so your political talking points are unlikely to change their perspective.

“Don’t defend the policy,” Harris said. “It’s not a winnable situation. The key to solving conflict is to be non-confrontational.”

6. Explain the legal consequences

While you’re unlikely to change someone’s viewpoints on mask wearing, it can be helpful to explain what the executive order requires and the consequences for ignoring them – since some people may be genuinely unaware.

Instead of threatening a customer, put some ownership on them, Beasinger said.

Explain how their decision to wear a mask while walking to the bathroom or the bar is what’s helping the business stay open, afloat and avoid legal troubles.

7. Remind people this is a state policy, not your own

Businesses have to follow lots of rules and procedures – whether they like them or not. Remind upset customers that you’re just trying to follow the executive order and that it does have legal weight.

Shift the framing of the conversation to convey your business is just trying to follow the law and not get shut down – as opposed to the more contentious debate about whether masks can curb the spread of COVID-19.

Encourage people to contact their legislator if they’re upset about the order, Grill said.

8. Do not interrupt

Sometimes, people just need to vent for a minute, and then they’re fine. Let them, Harris said.

Interrupting and talking over people will only upset people more and escalate the issue. Remember, this is not the time to debate or challenge someone’s thinking – the goal is to diffuse the tension.

9. It’s not about you

Odds are, you’re not the sole source of an upset customer’s frustration. So keep your emotions out of it. Understand they’re displacing their anger on you.

“Don’t take these things personally. It’s not about you. That guy is not mad about you,” Harris said. “It’s the pandemic, it (could be) that he’s lost his job, (or is upset by) the lockdown.”

10. Watch for clues that they’re getting agitated

Once somebody is yelling and throwing a tantrum, it doesn’t take a detective to know they’re upset. The key is to pick up on the more subtle cues before it gets to that point.

Note the person’s body language, Harris said. It could be excessive hand gestures, facial expressions, getting red in the face, sweating, balled fists, tightened jaws or fidgeting. Harris says to watch men for the “rooster stance,” where their chest is protruding and they look ready to fight.

Listen for cues, too. Bullying, raised voices and yelling are clear signs a problem might be unfolding and you need help to diffuse, Harris said.

11. Be aware of your own body language

You may be giving off threatening vibes without even knowing it, based on your own body language. This can escalate a conflict further.

You want to look “non-threatening,” Harris said. Don’t cross your arms, put your hands on your hips, pace, clench your fists, shrug your shoulders or point your fingers at the person. Make eye contact, but don’t stare them down. Keep your hands in front of you in an open and relaxed state.

“You need to maintain a relaxed, calm presence about you so you can model the appropriate behavior you want this person to model,” Harris said.

12. Use positive, direct language

Never threaten or challenge a customer – that will only escalate the situation. Give them options instead of threats.

“Someone’s got to be the adult,” Harris said. “The person who’s upset may taunt you, may call you names. You’ve got to keep yourself under control.”

Be positive, simple and direct with your word choice and leave emotion out of it, Harris said.

“It’s kind of the old, ‘You get more bees with honey than vinegar,'” Grill said.

13. Don’t succumb to ‘fight or flight’ mode

When conflict arises, our bodies resort to a “fight or flight” response, where adrenaline flows and we prepare to defend ourselves or flee.

“With de-escalation, you can’t do either one,” Harris said. “You’ve got to appear centered and calm – even when we’re not. When someone’s in your face yelling, you might not be centered and calm. But you want to try.”

Ignoring the “fight or flight” response is not natural, but is key to diffusing tension. That’s why practicing these techniques are crucial, Harris said.

14. Breathe slowly, control your heart rate

How can you keep your body out of “flight or flight” mode? Step one is recognizing when you’re starting to get flustered.

You want to control your heart rate and not get worked up, Harris said. A physical strategy to accomplish this is to take slower, deeper breaths.

15. Apologize – even when you’re not wrong

Apologizing is tough enough, even when you’re at fault. It’s even harder to apologize when you’ve done everything right.

But this is exactly what Grill tells his restaurant employees to do.

“One thing I’ve always taught my managers is, the act of apologizing to someone – even if you’re not in the wrong – is what leaders do,” Grill said. “Leaders always take responsibility.”

Taking responsibility tends to diffuse situations, Grill said. But a tactful approach is required to apologize to a customer while also adhering to the earlier tip of telling customers this is a state policy and not your own.

16. Empathize with their feelings, not their behavior

It’s understandable and acceptable to be frustrated with the new mask protocol. It’s not OK to take that frustration out on store and restaurant employees.

Feel free to empathize a bit with customers who are frustrated, Harris said. If customers start getting aggressive, Harris says to say something like, “I understand, you have every right to feel angry – many people do. But it’s not OK for you to threaten our wait staff.”

17. Don’t turn your back on the customer – it’s rude and dangerous

You don’t want to abruptly end a conversation and turn your back on an angry customer, Harris said. It can come off as rude and it also puts you in a vulnerable position.

If you are going to end a conversation and leave, calmly communicate before you go that you’re going to get a manager or somebody higher up to help resolve the issue.

18. Keep extra distance, with barriers

You could follow all 17 points above and still find yourself in a troublesome situation if the customer wants to be difficult. The last four steps are advice for what to do if the customer continues to get out of hand.

While social distancing guidelines recommend staying 6 feet away from others, Harris says to stay 10 to 12 feet away from upset customers, if possible. You don’t want to be up in their face and appearing threatening or within an arm shot of them.

It’s also helpful to have a barrier between you and the customer, if possible – like a table, chair or host stand.

19. Don’t get between the customer and their exit

Once belligerence begins, the goal is to get the customer to walk out the door. So don’t stand between the customer and the exit, Harris said.

They should have a clear path to the door. You don’t want to be in the way, in case they decide to get physical on their way out. If they do head out, keep following the tips from above and remain calm – taunting or threatening a person might only reignite trouble.

20. Let them take the ‘stuff’

The ultimate goal of de-escalation is to keep your employees and patrons safe.

So what should a shoe-store employee do if a customer they’ve refused service to threatens to leave with the shoes?

“Let them walk out with the shoes. Call the police. Be a good witness,” Beasinger said. “At the end of the day, it’s ‘stuff.’ And ‘stuff’ is not worth having your employees getting hurt or assaulted or God-forbid worse.”

Remind your employees of the old cliché: Things can be replaced, people can’t.

21. Call 911 and get out of harm’s way

If you feel violence is coming, tactfully remove yourself from the situation and call 911 – or have a fellow employee call 911.

By this point, nothing you say will convince the person to wear a mask. Accept that, don’t let your pride get the best of you and do whatever you can to avoid danger for yourself and others inside the business.

“Don’t put yourself in a situation where you might be harmed,” Harris said. “You’ve got to leave that area.”


In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.

Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.

Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.

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