“I am going to kick your ass!”
Suddenly, and probably unexpectedly, you’re confronted by an angry person. How do you react?
Your gut is telling you to run or fight yet it’s not always that simple. What if this is a student of yours? What if you are a support worker responsible for this individual? What if you’re a supervisor or manager dealing with an angry client? These situations are highly emotional for both of you. Rarely can you just flee or engage in a mixed martial arts battle. What can you do?
Let’s look at some proven tips for staying safe and resolving the situation:
1. Situational awareness
- First, check yourself: your emotional state is your choice. Emotional self control is key so make sure you project calmness.
- Then check out your surroundings. Where are the exits? Who else is around? Is your risk for personal harm high?
- Observe the other person’s verbal and physical behaviour. Note how far have they escalated.
- Finally plan your approach and how you might exit, if needed. Remember, safety is paramount.
2. Take care with your words
Resist the urge to say: ‘’Calm down.’’ Think about how you’d feel if you were upset. Remember your emotions affect your words and if you’re fearful this will show up when you speak. Watch your tone and your volume; if you appear bureaucratic, argumentative or directive this will likely trigger an escalation. Speaking calmly and slowly will often cause the other person to do so as well.
3. Acknowledge the problem
You can’t avoid the elephant in the room, so name it and deal with it. Acknowledge the emotion and ask open-ended questions to seek understanding. “Wow, you’re upset; how can I help out?” “You’re clearly angry, what’s going on?” Caution: asking a person if they’re upset, when they clearly are, will lessen your credibility and likely earn you a rude response.
4. Be a great listener
While maintaining a safe distance, use your body positioning and non-verbal actions to show the person you are there to listen. Orient yourself towards the person, open up your arms, raise your eyebrows and make respectful eye contact. Invite them to talk, and remember it is not about you. Use small verbal encouragements to let them know you are listening (e.g., sure, okay, yes, etc). Resist the urge to interrupt and ask your next question.
5. Be empathetic
Dealing with their emotions first is an effective defusing technique. Be empathic and explore their feelings by using non-judgemental questions. Express your goal to try to comprehend where they are coming from. Ask open-ended questions that help you understand their situation. “I’d like to hear more about how you’re feeling.” Use their name if possible, and express that “we” will get this sorted out together.
6. Use silence
Silence in a normal conversation is often awkward, yet it can be very helpful in angry confrontations. Using silence helps a person slow down their thinking and regain composure and it buys you some time. Lead into a silence break by putting the onus on yourself, “That’s an important point, give me a minute to think about that.” “We’ve covered a lot of ground; I need a moment to collect my thoughts on what we’ve talked about.”
7. Give choices
People often become angry or violent because they feel they have lost control of a situation. They feel someone has either done something to them or is not doing something for them.
Providing them with choices helps them regain control of themselves. Refocus the individual on their issue and if possible offer them choices: “I can take down your complaint in writing or would you rather write it out in your own words?” “Do you want to tell me what happened first or how this made you feel?” “ We can fill out the application together or you can do it on your own.”
Your overall goal is to respond to these situations confidently, effectively and safely. There is no “one size fits all” approach to managing aggressive and abusive conduct, but being prepared is critical to successfully defusing a situation. Remember: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” So take some time to think about your more common conflict situations. Visualize how you will act when responding positively. And finally, practice, practice, practice!
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