The only response to aggressive and resistant behaviour is to manage the situation

Looking at one of those ‘zero tolerance’ posters the other day made me think how provoking they are and, therefore, achieving the exact opposite of their intended aim. The only response to aggressive and resistant behaviour is to manage the situation. In this blog, I introduce and outline the practical techniques of communication necessary to manage and diffuse highly charged, difficult and even dangerous situations.

As a provider of legal and social care training courses, I know only too well that aggressive, resistant or even disguised non-compliant behaviour is ever-present when working with parents, clients and service users. Apart from it being emotionally draining, it can seriously get in the way of achieving positive outcomes for children and vulnerable adults. Being equipped to manage aggression and resistance is the best way to protect yourself and move the situation forward to a manageable place.

I designed this training to help my clients make it clear that aggression is not going to achieve anything, even if it has in the past. ‘Zero tolerance’ means more than just calling security. Employees and staff confronted by an aggressive, or intractable person (disguised non-compliance) need the skills to identify and defuse the situation rather than be perceived as aggravating it. Otherwise, the aggressor’s fuse will shorten with potentially dangerous consequences in the immediate or near future.

Of course, it’s not only social workers who suffer abusive and aggressive behaviour from their clients and families, many people across the public and private sector – teachers and health workers, shop assistants, transport staff, call centre workers, etc – are subjected to threatening behaviour on a regular basis.

What’s behind the aggressive and resistant behaviour?

In a professional setting, aggression is never acceptable but, in some circumstances, it may be understandable. Exploring any background leading up to a person becoming aggressive might just be the key to helping them view the matter in a more dispassionate way.

Usually, aggression arises out of frustration – as in they can’t get what they want and the threat of violence has worked before. But, often, it’s more nuanced and stems from:

  • Poor communication skills – an inability to explain their situation and problems.
  • Feeling powerless, maybe threatened.
  • In pain – mentally or physically.
  • Expecting hostility due to past experience and feeling anger is the last resort.
  • Being in conflict with the individual before.
  • Being fired up – from a previous incident, stress, exercise even.
  • Others behaving aggressively around them.
  • Peer pressure – particularly young people.
  • A member of staff’s intransigence and unsympathetic behaviour.

Understanding the reason may assist you in helping the person to calm down. It maybe they are in an unfamiliar place or situation. Some people react badly to so-called authority while others just expect a bad outcome and, in effect, are protecting themselves.

Take the time to find out more, and do your best to remain objective.

Respect the hornet’s nest

No one should have to put up with abusive behaviour. But some people enjoy provoking others or, at least, are indifferent to their circumstances. Remember, provocation can be a valid, legal defence. So avoid:

  • Adopting a generally patronising attitude.
  • Negative body language or facial expressions.
  • Being dismissive or appearing not to be listening.
  • Inappropriate forms of address and getting the person’s name wrong.
  • Using jargon or complicated language that might humiliate someone.
  • Telling someone they are wrong to feel/behave as they do.
  • Making assumptions.
  • Trivialising the person’s issues or situation.
  • A general lack of respect.

 Explore the impact of one’s own value-base and behaviour

Don’t be quick to judge someone in a situation – remain objective. Think about the last time someone irritated you and prompted a “Who are you to tell me how to …?” response. How justified did you feel in responding in an angry manner?

Empathy makes you instantly more in control and less threatening yourself so here are 9 ways to defuse and encourage calmness:

  1. Demonstrate active listening: Allow people to tell their story and express themselves. Your time may be limited but we all know how frustrating it is when someone just isn’t listening to us struggling to explain something. Taking time early on might save more later when it really matters.
  2. Demonstrate understanding by summarising and, where necessary clarifying, the person’s thoughts and feelings.
  3. Be polite and show respect at all times but if, you can, balance your professional attitude with a little less formality.
  4. Don’t be forceful in any suggestions. “Try not to upset yourself any more than you already are” is better than “Just Calm Down!” which may have the reverse effect if the person resents being told what to do.
  5. Suggest how you can help – give them contact details, offer to talk to someone useful yourself.
  6. Use your own body language – adopt a non-threatening, open stance. Keep your hands open but do not ‘stop’ the other person by holding your hand up like a policeman stopping traffic.
  7. Have good eye contact but not in a confrontational way.
  8. Move slowly, steadily and calmly.
  9. Respect personal space.

Recognise the signals of aggressive behaviour

We all know aggression when we come across it – shouting, swearing, name calling, threatening gestures are all obvious signs. It’s also important to recognise behaviour that signals aggression, how it escalates and likely outcomes if not managed. For example, sarcasm, tutting, sucking teeth, a change in body language, moving into your personal space, no eye contact or too much eye contact (such as intense staring). These are all signals that someone may be working themselves up into an angry outburst.

It’s equally important to be aware of your own ascent into aggression – from the physical (dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, etc) to the emotional (anger, impatience, anxiety, feeling tearful). As a professional you will find yourself in challenging, difficult, or even dangerous situations when working with clients, service users or families. So think about your own responses and reactions in certain situations.

Training will help you manage aggressive and resistant behaviour

If your working environment exposes you to resistant or aggressive behaviour from others, contact us. Kingsley Knight training offers practical, evidence-based strategies to help you manage the behaviour of other people so you reduce the threat of violence and achieve more positive outcomes:

  • Assessing danger to self and others.
  • Exploring disguised non compliance or superficial compliance.
  • Using effective models of communication in challenging situations.




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