How private investigators manage confrontations, volatile situations, and the stress of the job depends on personality, training, and self-care.
by Kathryn Loving
A private investigator’s days are often filled with uneventful surveillance and dead ends, but that’s only part of the job. On occasion, PIs may land in hot water and must rely on their communication and negotiation skills to get them out of it.
It takes talent, poise, and honed interpersonal skills to talk an enraged spouse out of swinging at you. Physical weapons are not always available, so we use what we do have in our arsenal—words, empathy, and emotional intelligence—to de-escalate a volatile situation.
Operating effectively under stress is a must-have skill in this line of work. No amount of training can prevent us from feeling fear in extreme situations. But we can learn to mitigate the stress symptoms, and even harness them—to laser-focus our energies on solving the problem at hand.
The Adrenaline Rush
In stressful conditions, our adrenal glands secrete a hormone to prepare the body for “fight or flight.” That shot of adrenaline can feel like a head rush: Your heart races. You breathe faster and deeper. You feel a surge of energy, heightened awareness, or even a suppressed pain response. And under extreme stress, you may experience tunnel vision, auditory exclusion (temporary hearing impairment), or a sense that time has slowed.
Some people seek out that rush (in its milder forms) as a welcome distraction from the more tedious aspects of investigative work. But when the job brings us into contact with unpredictable people and dangerous places, that physiological fight or flight response isn’t just a bungee-jump in the park anymore; it’s a survival mechanism.
The flip side is that those same symptoms that prepare us to deal with danger can also cloud judgement and make clear thinking a challenge.
Responding, Not Reacting
Fight or flight symptoms affect everyone, no matter their age or experience. But training—especially role playing exercises—can give a person the tools necessary to respond rather than react to intense situations.
Working for many years in law enforcement has helped me develop an almost automatic response to danger. But that automatic response didn’t evolve…automatically. You wouldn’t expect a pilot to save a plane full of passengers on the wits she was born with. She uses her mental emergency checklist and her flying experience to problem-solve the craft to safety.
When I’m facing a dangerous or stressful situation, I, too, have a mental checklist that I rely on during emergencies:
- Be aware of the adrenaline, but don't let it do the driving. Recognizing the symptoms helps me focus and respond, rather than react.
- Body language says a lot. While I may be scared, I know I can’t show it, so I stand tall.
- Remember to breathe slowly. If I’m not breathing calmly and deliberately, I’m probably not thinking calmly and deliberately, either.
- Remember the basics, assess your situation, and know your exits.
- Be prepared to call for help if you need it.
- Look into the person’s eyes. The eyes can tell you a lot about someone's mood and intent. Study them quickly. Assess.
- Determine whether the person is a physical threat. If so, increase your distance.
- Voice inflection and tone are key. Purposely lower and soften your voice when you speak.
- Use language which will deflect and defuse the conflict. Do not be confrontational.
- Don’t yell if you can help it. That usually only escalates the situation.
Like pilots, police officers run through simulations of intense scenarios they may encounter on the job. Any “automatic” response should be based on training and experience. Sure, there’s an element of gut, but let’s call it “educated gut.”
A Real-Life Scenario
One day, early in my law enforcement career, I was called to investigate a report of a drunk, aggressive man roaming a neighborhood. I soon found the man and asked to speak to him. He stumbled toward me, obviously intoxicated. I asked what he was doing and told him about the complaint. He said he was lost and gave me a false name (although I didn’t know it at the time).
Our precinct was flooded with calls that day, so I hoped to solve the problem without making an arrest. My first idea was to deliver him home or to a safe address, but he couldn’t remember his address. He also could not suggest anyone to call, nor did he have money for a cab.
During our conversation, I felt uneasy. The man was large—six feet tall and around 220 pounds (as compared to my five-foot-six and 120). My “educated gut” told me this was not just a drunk man lost after a party, and I felt I had run out of options.
I told him I had to arrest him and reached for his hand to cuff him. “If you can’t give an address, then I don’t have anywhere else to take you,” I explained. That’s when he dropped low and lunged for me.
I had already signaled for backup over my portable radio. The dispatcher called for units, but they were all tied up on important calls. My closest backup was 15 minutes away. That’s a lot of time for things to go wrong.
I deflected the lunge with a knee to the groin and told him, as calmly as I could, to stop resisting. He wasn’t the toughest fighter I’d seen—he lunged and pulled back again and again, but his attacks were slow and sloppy, like the shambling stride of a drunk. He kept trying to shove me away, but he was so uncoordinated that he only made light contact a couple of times.
At one point, the man seemed to regain focus, and he swung at me with a clenched fist. I grabbed his arm and used his momentum to pin him to the car. I managed to get one hand cuffed as he twisted and flailed his arms.
I shouted over the noise of our struggle: Did he have any children? He said that he did. “Is this the example you want to set for them?” I said. “Who’s going to take care of them, your parents? Do you really want to do this to them?”
He grunted and twisted one last time, then relented. “Pssh, man, how’d you know?” he slurred.
“You’re a trickster ya know,” he added with a chuckle.
Of course, it wasn’t a trick; it was a conversation—one that took the fight out of him, as I reminded him of the people in his life and how his actions might affect them. After that, he gave me his real name. It turned out that he was also wanted for some misdemeanor warrants.
I ran into him from time to time on the streets, and he always pointed at me and call me, “trickster.” But I never had any more problems with him in police contacts.
Never underestimate your verbal skills to defuse a situation. Negotiation is your power tool. Will it work in every scenario? Certainly not. But I rely on my mental checklist, experience, and training to evaluate a situation and decide on the best course of action. So far, those skills have kept me safe.
Working as contracted investigators is a trickier prospect. Since PIs don’t have the authority of a badge or powers of arrest (and many may not even carry a firearm), private eyes have fewer choices when a difficult situation arises. Without access to the same training resources as law enforcement, what can PIs do to prepare themselves for dangerous situations?
Managing Your Well-Being
The first step is to do an honest self-assessment: What are your natural and trained responses to danger?
I conducted a survey to find out what kinds of responses trained law enforcement officers reported in the field. (I think private investigators will find these responses relatable, since many of us often enter private investigations after our police careers.)
Twenty-two officers volunteered to take the questionnaire that I created through an online survey vehicle. I found the results interesting, yet not surprising.
The participating officers were given multiple descriptive choices of bodily responses to stressful events. Two categories prevailed:
- 55% of respondents - Calm breathing and slight heart rate acceleration. I have all my faculties together and react according to trained responses. I don't feel an adrenaline surge. These are common occurrences in my daily duties and I have grown used to them. Remembering all the details depends upon type and length of circumstances, but most major events are easy to recollect.
- 45% of respondents - Heart rate increases and adrenaline kicks in. I breathe a bit harder, but can still perform duties accordingly. I use my training, equipment, and experience appropriately to solve the dilemma. I can remember most of the details of the events to record in a document.
Over time, we can all hope to develop a calm edge during confrontations. I’m sure most PIs have faced an enraged domestic partner on some quiet cul-de-sac—suddenly, an angry dude is filling the windshield wielding a middle finger, or worse. While you can practice how to handle these moments to some degree, the real situations are always more intense than practical exercises. And no two are ever the same.
Dealing with Long-Term Stress
After the encounter is over, how do people cope with the emotional aftermath? The majority from my survey reported that they work out or engage in a hobby, while others just write the report and move on. Only 9% attend the debriefings available to officers involved in an event.
Not all officers choose positive outlets. Instead, some “self-medicate” by drinking, smoking, or overeating.
Since there are no debriefings available to PIs, we have to work even harder to stay mentally healthy. Every brain responds to stress differently, and it takes yet another frank self-assessment to figure out what kinds of de-stress activities work best for you.
In the survey, I asked participants how they maintain mental and physical well-being. Participants chose from a long list of options, including “all that apply” and an additional write-in response.
Here are the top results:
- 78% have hobbies outside of work they engage in regularly
- 68% work out or play sports on a regular basis
- 46% seek out additional time with family, both simply being around them and planned activities
- 38% actively participate in prayer, religious fellowship, and/or meditation
- 9% attend counseling
- 9% engage in community volunteering opportunities
In another segment, survey participants were asked to list five things they felt were important to wellness and what they believed they should be doing to prepare for intense situations. They all gave essentially the same answer.
The results are in no order of preference:
- Healthy diet
- Family time
- Hobbies / Non-work-related activities
- Meditation / Prayer
It’s no surprise that mental health professionals and trainers recommend these behaviors to all first responders. Private investigators may face similar situations in the field, and we, too, can incorporate these self-care behaviors into our lives.
How we react to the dangerous situations we encounter on the job largely depends upon our innate responses, but training can enhance our natural skills. At the very least, thinking through various scenarios and planning an initial response is better than winging it.
Just as important: Investing in our wellness can help us weather this difficult work in the long term without paying a high health price. And better overall mental health can also translate to steady, poised reactions when stressful moments arise—which adds up to safe and effective investigative work.
Kathryn Loving is the writer for the CriminalJusticeDegree.com blog where she uses her 15 years of experience as a Wyoming detective and patrol officer to provide tips for those looking to advance their education and career in this field. During her career, she worked as a hostage negotiator, field evidence technician, and field training officer.