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Respecting the corona rules at the USC: ‘Giving people a quick reminder, then moving on is what works best'

Having to remind users of the café at the University Sports Centre (USC) about the 1.5 metre rule is something that can be quite difficult for the students who work there. Even more so since the restrictions on outdoor sports have been lifted. The students are now taking a course to show them how it's done.

USC Sports Centre
The bar/café/front desk of the University Sports Centre

The students who work at the USC behind the bar and at the front desk are taking a training course this week: the University Sports Centre Welcomes You'. The course is about how to speak to the users of the bar or café at the USC if they ignore the corona measures or the rules of the smoke-free University. The studens agree with course instructor Hans Smith: 'What's important is that the University is a safe and welcoming place. You have to be there for everyone, including vulnerable people who study or work at the University! They're the ones we're doing this for.'  But it's hard now that there are no corona restrictions out on the sportsfield: out there, you can grab hold of one another or jump on someone's back, no problem. But then, when you're back in the building, you have to keep to the 1.5 metre distance rule.' 

Els, a student of Biomedical Sciences, is one of the participants: 'People find it strange that they have to keep their distance when they're enjoying a beer' 

Els understands that students in the Sports Centre need to be reminded now and again about the 1.5 metre rule. 'They've just been doing some outdoor sports, where everything goes: you can jump on one another's back or give someone a shove...  For some people, then having to keep to the 1.5 metre rule when they're enjoying a beer is strange.' But it's our  job to remind them, Els believes. She herself is very careful about maintaining her distance, but there are others who are becoming more lax. Els is looking forward to receiving some tips on how best to speak to people about keeping to the rules. 'You really don't want to spend the whole evening getting into arguments with people.'

USC Sports Centre
Course instructor Hans Smith: 'Don't get into a discussion.' (©Simone Both)

Tips and theory

The morning  is filled with tips and theory that teach the student staff members how they can maintain the corona measures and the tightening up of the smoking ban, while at the same time staying friendly and welcoming. The word to watch out for is aggression, and the aim is to avoid  things getting that far.

Hans kicks off with a crash course in communication techniques and social skills, starting with something to boost their confidence. 'We're going to start today by talking about the exceptions. Always bear in mind that most people want a safe place to study and do sports.' They will appreciate a reminder. 'Be firm but not too severe. Just a reminder, guys, about keeping your distance and then you carry on with your work. Don't get into a discussion, and try to avoid any conflict. You could ask in the same breath what drinks you can get them. That tends to work,' Hans advises. 

Rubbish!

But, suppose someone thinks it's a load of rubbish. What do you do then? 'Imagine the person in front of you has three balloons. One of them holds the person's common sense, the second has the emotions and the third is for their norms and values. When someone gets angry, the last two balloons (emotions and norms and values) expand, at the cost of the balloon with the common sense. The first thing you need to do is to deflate these two balloons. You do that by first naming the emotion the person is showing and then letting them know you understand where they're coming from. You can use sentences like I can see you're frustrated and I know it's difficult. You'll see that the tone changes and then you can have a sensible conversation.'

Simon, a student of Facility Management (The Hague University of Applied Sciences): ‘It's reassuring to know what the best strategy is' 

Simon was always someone who would hang around for a long time in the café, and he was also a smoker. He stopped because it was too expensive.  But, as an ex-smoker, he can empathise with the people he's learning to take to task in today's course. It's a very useful course, Simon believes, and it's good that attention is being paid to it. But the staff do meet some resistance or get the odd smart backchat that could provoke them. 'And then it's reassuring to know what's the best strategy in different situations.' Simon gets on well with his colleagues in the University Sports Centre. They are a big friendly group that you can really rely on. 'That's an advantage when you all have to stick to the same rules. And we're really going to be doing that in the coming period.'  

‘Who do you think you are?’

While Hans explains the legal framework – ‘You may speak to people about their behaviour - in fact we encourage you to do just that - but if any steps have to be taken, that's down to your managers' –  a short, burly man moves to the front of the room, yelling: 'You nutcase!', banging so hard on the table that the whole room reverberates with the noise. 'Who do you think you are, telling me where I can and can't smoke!' The students look wide-eyed at this stocky Amsterdammer. ‘This is Mick,' says Hans Smith, introducing the guy who's caused the interruption. Mick worked for football club Ajax for over ten years, training the stewards and security staff and teaching them how to deal with hooligans. Mick's role this morning is to show the participants what they should do if a situation threatens to get out of hand. That calls for a different approach from what Hans has been teaching them.

USC Sports Centre
The two sports offered at the USC that have the highest level of contact between participants are rugby (outdoors) and self-defence sport Jiu Jitsu (indoors).

Defuse the situation in less than a minute

Using what is known in Dutch as the SCACA method, Mick runs through the de-escalation steps. The first step is to ignore the conflict (let it run its course). Step two is when you make contact with the other person (you introduce yourself, tell them your name, and take control of the situation). In step three, you actively listen (ask relevant questions). Step four is confrontation (be brief and decisive). And the final step, step five, is when you bring the situation to a close (you indicate the consequences, tell the other person what the choices are, and put the responsibility back in their hands). Mick takes the students through the five steps using some telling examples. 'You have to finish the closure part in 20 to 30 seconds,' he tells them, 'otherwise, the situation is likely to escalate and everyone will start to join in.' The students take in the information he's given them. What's the point of introducing yourself to a person who is behaving extremely aggressively, one of them asks. 'The aim is to distract the person and defuse the aggression,’ Mick explains. ‘You have to learn to use these tricks in a way that's natural for you. It's also important how you round off the encounter. A smile or a thumbs-up and then it's water under the bridge. In normal circumstances you might give the other person a pat on the shoulder, but that's not possible right now.'

Reminding people of the rules: the do's and don'ts

  • As a member of staff, you have to set a good example. Compliment people for keeping to the rules, and speak to them as they come in, explaining what the rules are. Then there's no misundertanding. 
  • Make sure you don't come across as if you're preaching to them, or being judgemental. Just remind them of the rules: we have these rules to make the university a safe place for everyone.  
  • Keep the message short and simple and then walk away or ask for their order. That way you don't leave any opportunity for discussion or disagreement. 
  • If someone gets aggressive, don't get into a discussion with them, but name the emotion, show you understand their norms and values. After that, move to a one-to-one conversation. 
  • What if they continue to be aggressive? Make sure you stay calm and try to defuse the aggression using the five steps above: ignore the conflict (people can always moan) - make contact - listen actively - confront them (protect your limits) - closure. Allow verbal aggression no more than one minute. 
  • If the situation threatens to escalate, pick your fights. Walk away if you can, and make sure you have some back-up.
© Simone Both

Text: Marijn Kramp
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