A 2-part framework designed to build your awareness around what may arise, and a mental toolkit to gracefully handle any situation
Cutting someone off is one of the most difficult things you will have to do as a bartender, server, or manager.
Between the US and Canada alone, 15.8 million people have Alcohol Use Disorder. This means the chances you’ll encounter a challenging situation in your establishment are high.
Learning to effectively cut someone off is a necessary skill for a successful, responsible bartender. And ultimately, knowing that you can disarm these situations will skyrocket your confidence, increasing the comfort-level for you and your customers.
Sometimes difficult situations come storming through our doors like a raging bull. Sometimes they’re much harder to detect–all is well for several visits, and then suddenly, there’s a live-wire that needs diffusing.
Because let’s face it, when humans are under the influence of alcohol, we operate at a primitive cognitive level. As bartenders, sometimes we’re forced to deal with that level of awareness. It can be like reasoning with a toddler (but with way more emotional baggage).
In other words, it’s delicate.
So how can you become a bartender with the confidence and tact to disarm any situation?
An alternative to ‘cutting someone off’
Before we add individual maneuvers to your toolkit, let’s consider replacing the term ‘cutting someone off’ with ‘putting a guest under our care’. Whether or not this is used with your team isn’t as important as adopting the mindset and ethos behind it.
Switching lenses in this way is powerful for two reasons:
- Saying “Our” → Now the responsibility falls on your entire team–not just you. Your first response when your ’spidey-senses’ are tingling should be to let everyone on your team know. This will raise your whole team’s awareness, empower you (strength in numbers), and likely raise the consciousness of the individual in question (we can sense when people’s eyes are on us).
- Remembering the importance of “Guest” and “Care” → Despite the fuss they are causing, your customer is still a guest, and you have a moral (if not legal) obligation to care for them. This can help you avoid escalating the problem. Battles can arise when we forcibly say “you’re cut off.” Instead, saying something like “I won’t be serving you any more tonight” removes any sense of blame on the intoxicant, sets a clear boundary, and you assume full responsibility.
Now that we have a more appropriate lens through which to view these situations, let’s begin by looking at the maneuvers that are always at your disposal. (In Part 2 of this guide, we’ll show word-for-word scripts of these maneuvers in action.)
12 Bullet-Proof* Maneuvers You Can Use To Disarm Any Situation
*Nothing’s actually bullet-proof, but these come pretty close.
1. Legality + Liquor Inspectors
One of my favourites is to simply use the law as a reason why we can’t serve someone.
There are two specific reasons this mechanism is so effective:
- The law is outside of your control — aka you have no choice
- The law speaks to signs/indicators that you are noticing in the individual — in other words, the individual isn’t wrong, and maybe they’re not even too intoxicated…they’re just signs that you’re noticing.
It’s almost as though you and the individual are both looking at a shared problem, which takes away any sense of there being a battle between the two of you — you’re in it together.
To add more weight to this, you can mention that liquor inspectors have been breathing down your neck, and they’re in your establishment all the time, so everyone’s on high alert (“it’s possible we’re misreading the situation, but liquor inspectors have been breathing down our necks, so we have to go with what we see!”).
You can also deploy a bit of empathy and say, “I was recently in the exact same state as you and told me I seemed too intoxicated just a couple days ago!”
Then drop the bill and move on. It’s important to make the boundary clear that this isn’t open for discussion.
2. The Water Move
The Water Move is a negotiation tactic for when you may need a bit more time to gauge the situation.
You simply say, “I’ll tell you what, you drink this pint of water, and then we’ll talk”
You could put the glass of water down, and go off and do something else while the maneuver takes its effect.
This gets them to slow down their rate of consumption (possibly bringing them to their senses that they don’t need any more to drink).
This is another consciousness-raising maneuver as you asking them to drink more water is a clear sign that they may appear intoxicated, and it’s tough to argue when you’re acting in their best interest.
3. The Ethical Lie
Many people think lying is bad, but when it’s in the best interest of everyone’s experience at your establishment…it might be a good thing.
For example, I recently heard a story about a bar that was empty in the middle of the day.
A clearly intoxicated person came in asking for a seat at the bar.
Without skipping a beat, the bartender said “Apologies sir, we’re all booked up tonight!”
This is an ethical lie.
You can always say that there are reservations, that you’re fully booked, that last call has already been done (because there’s going to be a buy-out), etc.
4. Extreme Ownership
The Extreme Ownership maneuver is one of my favourites for when someone says “who’s your manager?”
You see, 9 times out of 10, when an intoxicated person asks you this question, their goal is to take you out of your power.
And at the Nimble Bar School, we don’t let our students walk in a world (especially not behind a bar) where people can take them out of their power.
So what we tell them to say in response to this question is this:
“Actually, I own the place, so I don’t have a manager.”
And if you have an ownership mentality behind your bar, which you should, people are less likely to f*%k with you in the first place.
5. “Have I done something to offend you?”
Sometimes you’ll just get an iffy vibe from someone. Maybe they’re staring you down, or they’re rude.
And since our first line of defense can’t be “Get out!” (because we’re tactful wizards), we have to approach it with a bit more grace.
The best way to disarm a situation like this is by simply asking, “Have I done something to offend you?”
Again, you’re not making them wrong (even if they are), you’re asking an honest question and you’re assuming responsibility.
6. “I won’t be serving you tonight”
That being said, sometimes you don’t need to be as graceful as you think you do, and can matter-of-factly say, “I won’t be serving you tonight”
Because putting a guest under your care is really about putting ultra clear boundaries in place. Here are a couple of examples of ways bartenders tend to cut people off, and how the boundary is less clear than it could be:
- “I don’t feel comfortable serving you anymore tonight” → This makes it about you, which could lead to a discussion about what would make you feel comfortable…
- “You’re cut off” → This makes them wrong and could lead to embarrassment (which could arm, instead of disarm, the situation)…
Very simply: “I won’t be serving you tonight” sets a clear boundary and does not lead to a negotiation.
You can do it with a kind smile, and possibly follow-up with one of the aforementioned maneuvers, but the boundary is very clear. You. Will. Not. Serve. Them.
7. Remove the barrier → Go to their side of the bar
When you’re behind the bar, you have the power. Think about it, everyone is coming to you, and you have what they want.
But you actually leverage this power more effectively if you go to their side of the bar, and you show that you’re not abusing the inherent power you have.
You don’t need the barrier to do what you gotta do.
So you go around the bar, to where they’re sitting, and kindly, yet assertively, say what you have to say. And you say it directly to them, out of the ear-shot of others.
Which brings us to another maneuver:
8. Pull them aside
If you can’t say what you have to say out of ear-shot of others at the bar, then simply say “Hey, can we have a quick chat over here?”
Taking them aside shows that you respect them.
9. Group dealings: delegate responsibility to least-intoxicated individual
Sometimes you’ll encounter groups where there’s just one member in the group who is too intoxicated for you to serve.
Before using any of the above maneuvers, delegate the responsibility of the situation to someone in the group who isn’t intoxicated.
Pull that person aside by saying, “Can we chat over here for a quick second?”
If they say “Why?” you can respond with “‘I’d like to get your advice on something”
10. Future Focus
Part of the reason not ser
An effective way to help them understand that you’re not taking something away from them now, is by helping them focus on the future benefits.
For example, you could say something like “I want you to look forward to coming back soon, instead of feeling crappy because I gave you too much tonight”
(See how you always assume responsibility and never make them wrong?)
Or you could say “Come visit us tomorrow — we’ll give you another drink then”
You can put this maneuver on steroids with the following tactic…
11. Give them something
At one of the bars we consulted with, we recommended that they create business cards that say, “Finally a business card that’s good for something. Exchange this card and redeem it for a treat on us”
And then on the back we ask for some of their contact info so that we can stay in touch with them.
But if you use the future focus maneuver AND give them a card like this…they really can’t be terribly upset with you: not only are you assuming responsibility and acting in their best interest…You’re also giving them a GIFT.
And of course, you can always use this maneuver:
12. The Police
If you’re unable to rectify the situation, then you’ll simply say “We’ll have to get the police in here” and then call them.
Chances are pretty good as soon as they find out you’ve done so, they’ll leave, but don’t leave it to chance. Call the police.
A closing note on using these maneuvers
Half the battle is getting comfortable with the discomfort you’ll feel in being direct. Employing these maneuvers will take a bit of courage, and some training.
The best thing you can do is be prepared for the awkward silence between you using the maneuver, and the guest registering it.
And know that you’ll be able to confidently deal with whatever their response is.
So study these maneuvers, imagine yourself using them in different situations, and practice role-playing with your team.
Part 2 of this guide will feature word-for-word scripts from real-life examples of these maneuvers in action.
What’d I Miss?
Now…Are there any strategies for disarming difficult situations at your establishment that you think I’ve missed?
Share with us in the comments below!