Eight key steps to manage aggression at work

Eight key steps to manage aggression at work

Have you ever faced a very aggressive colleague or customer? It’s bad enough on the phone but very scary face-to-face.

Ideally every workplace has some rules, standards or a code of conduct to help. Ideally a code and training before is better than mopping up after damage too late.

1. Recognise early warning signs

There are many reasons a person may be aggressive and abusive or even violent – poor service, a recent incident, alcohol, unemployment, jealousy, psychotic illness, and many more. Signs can be:

  • Rising voice or narrowed eyes.
  • Change of behaviour that is very unusual.
  • Agitated movements and pacing.
  • Strange and disturbing communication.
  • Hands in pocket, or carrying suspicious bags – possible weapons

2. Step in and help

If one of your team is experiencing a problem with a difficult angry person, stand nearby – within vision and hearing – as that alone can help and you are close at hand to offer more practical assistance. If you are not a manager, alert a manager ASAP.

3. Manage your own emotions

Don’t take it personally. This may be the way they express their feelings. Just take deep breaths and stay calm. Ignore insults as best you can. Don’t tell yourself this is a nightmare! Tell yourself: “I can deal with this.” OR “I can get help.”

4. Minimise escalation

Problems escalate when someone is antagonized. So:

  • Talk to the person, allow some venting. Use a calm, slow voice and non-threatening tone. Don’t retaliate or blame.
  • Avoid turning your back or whispering to others, or making sudden movements, so there is no perception of attack.
  • If it is a customer, manage space and get support. Manage onlookers – direct other clients/customers away and apologise, saying that you will be with them soon. Get help from others.
  • Set and explain limits if abuse increases; for example, “It is hard for me to help while you are so angry. I need you to stop yelling so we can resolve this.” Be firm and definite. Speak louder if they are not responding, as it may help control the situation and/or alert others near you that help is needed.

5. Identify the issues

  • Introduce yourself as soon as possible, and find out and use their name.
  • Be responsive and helpful. Say words like, “I want to help.”
  • Listen positively. They may have good reason to be so angry. Try and be patient and not interrupt; if you do need to interrupt, just do it calmly and in a quiet one.
  • Use open body language, give your full attention and keep your hands visible.
  • Apologise, it defuses anger (even if it is not your fault). “I am sorry you are upset … sorry you are angry” or “I can see how frustrating this is.”
  • Work out what is wrong: clarify. Use empathy and ask questions related to the task of solving the problem. Do not say: “I know how you feel.” Ask what is causing the anger; for example, “I can see that you’re very upset about something. Tell me what’s making you so angry.”

6. Outline plan to help

Use decisive words, not words like “maybe” or “I will try”. For example, say: “What we will do is …” “There are two things we need to do, first …”

Agree on a solution. “So we agree it is best not to …” Or provide options (if you can) and be honest about what you can and cannot do.

7. Reduce risk

Stick to rules and repeat them:

  • You may not …
  • You need to lower your voice in here
  • You are not able to …
  • We do not allow…

If dangerously threatening, avoid direct eye contact (look for something or someone) but keep aware through peripheral vision. Choose to back off rather than confront.

Know your exits, how many people are around and pick up the phone and get back-up if very serious. Buzz another staff member – “I need your help NOW” – having agreed with them in advance that those words spoken firmly at any time means danger. Move closer to an exit.

If another staff member is nearby, they must switch focus/tasks to support.

Give warnings: “You will need to leave the premises if you continue to shout and swear.”

Ask person firmly to leave now: “You must leave the building now.”

If a person is potentially dangerous ask another staff member to call the police. Pre-agree the terminology that is unmistakable. This way the person does not get angrier by knowing the police have been called. Although in some cases, depending on the situation, this is exactly what they do need to hear.

Use panic alarm if any violence or extreme danger. If you are in a business with the ongoing potential of aggressive clients, install panic alarms that are easily accessible. Make sure panic buttons and alarms are tested regularly.

Only restrain someone as an absolute last resort. Don’t try and restrain someone on your own.

If they say they have a weapon, try to leave the room or building. If you cannot escape or they pull out the weapon, listen and use a calm tone of voice. Don’t grab for the weapon. Ask them calmly to put the weapon down on the floor. Don’t ask them to hand the weapon to you. Talk calmly and show concern to defuse the situation and make time for help to arrive.

If they continue to threaten with a weapon then obey their instructions, to avoid harm. Use surrounding objects and furniture as shields if violence occurs.

8. Debrief later

Debrief and discuss with peers and manager, and possibly an HR manager. Offer counselling for anyone distressed. Get counselling yourself if you are upset. Talk about how you handled it, how you feel and what could have been done better next time. Discuss poor actions of other staff if appropriate.

Keep careful, detailed, written notes (including notes of the results of any consultation).

Choose to let go of the negativity. Remember there was a reason for the anger and aggression. Learn to forgive.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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