Unfortunately, no matter how good an organisation’s personal safety policies and procedures are, it is still possible that a member of staff could find themselves in a situation with an aggressive member of the public while at work. According to the latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, there were 694,000 incidents of violence at work in 2017/18.
Violence and abuse should not simply be accepted as ‘part of the job’, so it is vital that staff are trained to be able to defuse aggression and possess the knowledge and skills to contain a difficult situation. These techniques are not limited to handling aggressive behaviour in the workplace; nonetheless, they are especially useful when applied to dealing with an aggrieved customer or an unhappy client.
Violence and aggression seldom come out of the blue. When working with others, it’s key that you are able to identify some giveaway signals that might suggest the mood has shifted. To predict when a person may become violent, make sure you are aware of the following signs:
When it comes to resolving conflict there are five main outcomes that can be worked towards:
If you find yourself in a situation where conflict is present, you should consider the potential outcomes and decide on which solution would be most appropriate given your current circumstance.
Once you have identified your goals, here are some steps that you can follow to neutralise problem situations and more likely bring them to a successful conclusion. If possible, it’s best to try and deal with conflict early on, to avoid it escalating and potentially becoming violent.
Try to avoid any physical contact unless absolutely necessary as this may cause provocation. Developing a friendly and open line of communication will mean the individual is more likely to feel respected and will open up to you about their frustrations, preventing the situation from escalating to aggression.
When talking to the other person, your voice should remain calm and slow, while maintaining an assertive tone. This will affirm your position while talking calmly will encourage the other party to do so as well.
It is important to remember that an aggressive situation is unlikely to be a deliberate personal attack. Workers can frequently come into the ‘firing line’ from a member of the public simply by entering an environment at the wrong time.
They may be frustrated due to a number of reasons, from personal stress to feeling intimidated, so it is important to remain calm and not take the situation personally. If possible, try to depersonalise the problem for the other person as well. This will help them to understand that they are frustrated at the issue itself, rather than towards you. For this reason, also remember that you shouldn’t react to any insults from the other party.
A message is only partly told with words and the messages conveyed with body language and non-verbal cues can enhance or betray what you’re saying. Open body language such as an open chest and arms, facing the person and making respectful eye contact will encourage them to confide in you.
Avoid defensive body language such as crossed arms or clenched fists which could be interpreted as hostile. We can tell someone that we understand and sympathise with them, but if we appear bored or desperate to leave, these feelings can be demonstrated in our body language or voice. The other person may detect this and it could undermine everything we’re saying.
One reason that someone might become aggressive, particularly in a workplace situation, is if they feel they’re not being listened to or taken seriously. Listening well is not a natural skill. People are often so intent on getting their own point across that they miss half of what is being said. Allowing someone to speak and listening to what they have to say often helps calm them down – in many cases, people simply need to vent their frustration. Therefore, an important skill to have when dealing with people – particularly when they’re behaving aggressively – is active listening.
This is not only about listening, but showing the other person that you’re listening and understanding what they’re saying by engaging with them. You could do this by nodding appropriately or taking notes. When you listen, try to remain empathetic, ask constructive questions to try and resolve the situation or seek clarification (if needed) on anything they’ve said. When they’ve finished speaking, reassure them by making sure they know you’re trying to help.
When someone has become aggressive it is likely a result of them feeling a lack of control towards the situation, they’re in. If possible, once understanding the issue, you should try to offer a choice of proactive solutions. Allowing the aggressor to choose between options will help them to regain a sense of control. For example, “I can take down your complaint in writing or would you rather write it out in your own words?”.
Your overall goal is to respond to these situations effectively and safely. There is no “one size fits all” approach to managing aggressive and abusive behaviour, but being prepared is crucial to successfully defusing the situation.
The most important thing to remember is to always protect yourself, whether that means creating a physical barrier between yourself and the aggressor, getting support from a colleague or other members of the public or leaving the situation entirely.
In order to protect yourself, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and have a plan if things escalate. When entering a new environment, you should be conscious of any nearby objects that could be used as weapons, such as chairs. It may also be useful to make a mental note of a clear path that could be used to escape if you have to – check where the exits are and identify any obstacles.
In certain circumstances, you may be more likely to encounter aggressive behaviour and therefore able to prepare yourself. For example, if you’re a community nurse visiting a patient with a history of violence and abuse, additional precautionary measures should be put in place. This might be arranging the appointment in a clinical environment instead of their home or completing the visit with a colleague.
Working alone increases the dangers associated with aggressive behaviour, particularly if the situation escalates to violence. Public-facing lone workers – especially those enforcing rules such as age-restrictions – are at an increased risk of verbal and physical abuse. While the techniques of diffusing aggression and conflict resolution will help, they can be backed up with a personal safety device, such as Peoplesafe’s MicroGuard or smartphone app.
Depending on the situation, you may not be able to phone the police, and they won’t be able to attend the scene immediately. Pressing the SOS button will discreetly raise an alarm to a receiving centre which can monitor the situation. In addition, the audio recording from the incident can be used as evidence, if necessary. Typically, lone workers equipped with a personal safety device feel safer when working with the public in isolation.