Are you in a job where you get paid to let people verbally abuse you? People in helping or customer service roles, school business managers, IT Help Desk professionals, and school staff are just some of the people who get to deal with more than their fair share of demanding and aggressive people. Of course, we don’t have to go far to find these difficult people – sometimes we just have to look in the mirror. But having said that, there are some people who excel in being difficult.

There are many reasons why people become aggressive. Sometimes they are resorting to such behaviour as an attempt to control other people – to get others to behave in ways they want. Sadly, sometimes this behaviour works. Other times, they are simply frustrated and doing the best they know how. People also have their own quirks and sensitivities. One of my top frustrations are organisations which are very rigid with how they do things. Don’t ask me to fill out unnecessary paperwork if you know what’s good for you.

People also become more intolerant and aggressive when there is a build up of stress. Their computer crashing may well be the thing that pushes them over the edge. People also use alcohol and other drugs to deal with stress. But these also inhibit their ability to think about their choices and lower the point at which they lose control of their behaviour. Other times, people have serious problems which underlie their aggression – mental health problems, personality disorders, organic brain injuries, etc.

Although the above factors partly explain aggressive behaviour, sometimes our responses are making a bad situation much, much worse. Ultimately, we need to be prepared to adjust ourselves for the individuals with whom we are speaking. If our response is unintentionally pushing buttons for the other person, we need to step back and think of smarter, more creative ways of responding.

Here are options from which you can choose when someone is next being rude, demanding or verbally aggressive.

  1. Acknowledge their perspective: Sometimes people are saying through their aggression that they are going to continue to get upset until you can genuinely appreciate how they are seeing things and how strongly they are feeling about it. It is important that you find the right words that demonstrate your understanding of how frustrated or angry they are.
  2. Apologise where you can: This might sound odd when you might feel it is they who should be apologising to you. But here we are trying to de-fuse their strong emotions so they are in a better position to hear what you have to say.

    Of course, it is relatively easy to apologise if there has been a genuine mistake by you or your workplace. But you can also consider apologising for how your actions may be affecting them, for how your behaviour may have come across, or simply apologising for an honest communication breakdown. When done genuinely, a good apology often helps people to put themselves in a more conciliatory frame of mind.

  3. Agree where you can: You might be able to agree with some of what they are wanting or saying. You may well be able to say, ‘I agree we need to work out something fair for everyone here’ or ‘I agree that we can do our part to help’.

    The above three approaches are what is called the AAA approach. I can tell you, it is very hard to stay upset with someone who is acknowledging your perspective, and genuinely apologising and agreeing where they can. These three strategies, when done well, will put the majority of people in a better place where they can hear what you have to say.

  4. Respectfully share your position: Here are a few reminders as to what it takes to keep it respectful. Let them be heard first. Someone has to be the grown-up here – it may as well be you. It is also important to both sound and look respectful when you speak. Imagine teenage girls at their worst as an example of how not to do it.You can also use phrases that soften what you have to say such as ‘The way I see it is …’ or ‘My workplace’s position on these things is …’ Without such phrases, what you have to say will sound like a statement of fact which they will be more likely to want to dispute.
  5. Offer something for the future: Here some flexibility from you may well encourage flexibility by them. But you will need to be very clear with your manager about those things on which you can be flexible and those things on which you cannot.

    You might also consider offering a trade. For example, ‘How about if I do … would you be prepared to do …? We cannot always give people what they want, of course. But where you cannot give people even some of what they want, you can at least give them some of what they need – understanding.

Although the most common type of aggression is verbal, there are times when it can easily escalate and your safety can be at risk.

So, if you deal with aggressive people on a regular basis or you simply want to be proactive, here are some ideas on what you can do before an incident occurs.

  1. Manage the environment: For a start, don’t allow yourself to be alone with very volatile clients. If you are doing home visits with volatile or unstable clients, at least take a colleague with you. It is also important to stay out of arms reach and to know where the exits are. Can you set up your office so you can easily exit if needed? Can you put out of reach sharp or blunt instruments that can be used as a weapon?

    Does your workplace need duress buttons installed that can be used if staff are feeling at risk? Yes, these systems can be expensive, but I have known schools to purchase a wireless doorbell, locating the button at the reception desk and the chime in an area where Admin staff can hear the alert and lend their support when needed.

  2. Use code words: These are innocuous phrases that are secret communication between you and your colleagues. ‘Please ask Mr Steed to see me’ might mean ‘Please ask others to lend their physical support’ whereas ‘Please call Mr Steed’ might mean ‘Please call the police’. I heard a story recently of hospital nurses who use the phrase ‘Code Pink’ to alert other nurses to lend their support whenever a particular doctor was acting in an intimidating way. You can imagine the misogynist who is suddenly surrounded by a lot of women.
  3. Change the audience: Sometimes simply asking if they would like to speak to your manager can be helpful. While it is very unfair that a client should be very rude to you, yet more respectful to your manager, sometimes people relate better to people who have a position of authority. Other times they relate better to a person with whom they simply make a better personal connection.You can also change the audience by moving the client away from people in the waiting room to whom they may be performing. Without an audience, some people behave more respectfully. Other times, the presence of other staff can improve that person’s behaviour. So, if you see a staff member being intimidated by an aggressive client, at least lend your physical presence to see if this helps.
  4. Ask them to leave: Here their behaviour needs to be pretty awful to ask people to leave the premises. But if you do so, at least sound very firm as you do so and give an explanation. ‘Please leave now as this is upsetting for other people. If you don’t leave, we will be calling the police.’ When it comes to asking people to leave, you need to be out of arms reach and have your back to the exit, just in case.
  5. Call security or the police: If your workplace is fortunate enough to have their own security guard, they should have been contacted by now. If they have not been contacted, you are relying on the astuteness of your co-workers to understand why you are asking for Mr Steed, or notice your clever martial arts defence, so that they call the police.
  6. Exit: Here we are not talking about using time-out for a few minutes, but more getting yourself out of the customer’s presence for your own and others’ safety. If the aggressive person is not willing to leave, then you can at least ask others to move away. Some workplaces have code words which mean lock yourself into a secure room or exit the building. Many schools, for example, play the a particular song as a signal which means that a potentially aggressive person is on the school grounds, the police have been called, and to lock the classrooms, preferably with the students inside.

Hopefully, you will never have to use the above strategies. But sadly I know of too many workplaces which wait until one of their staff have been assaulted before they put such measures in place.

Don’t be one of them.

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How Do You Handle Conflict?
“Difficult” Parents in Schools
Being Less Affected By Difficult People