Dealing with Aggression
Sadly, many of us have to deal with people being aggressive, whether as part of our work, or in the course of our daily lives. Parents with toddlers will often be dealing with frustration and aggression on a daily basis—but that may be rather easier to manage than aggression in another adult! It is, after all, not really acceptable to give an adult a ‘time out’, even if you think it would probably help both of you.
In dealing with aggression, it is important to respond appropriately. Responding angrily will almost certainly escalate the situation and make it harder to defuse—as the parents of toddlers will almost certainly confirm. This page provides some suggestions for ways to manage aggression in others, particularly through use of both verbal and non-verbal communication.
The First Line of Defence is Self-Control
Aggression is often associated with deep emotional responses: it is a reaction to threats, or anger. It therefore triggers an emotional response in other people.
If you are going to deal effectively with aggression in others, it is important that you understand and can manage your own emotional responses.
For example, you need to know what sort of behaviour or person makes you feel angry and potentially aggressive. Which kinds of behaviour get ‘right up your nose’? You also need to understand how you react—and then learn to control your feelings and ensure that your response is appropriate to the circumstances.
You can read more about this in our page on Recognising and Managing Emotions. You may also find our other pages on Emotional Intelligence useful.
Making an appropriate response can help the other person to manage their emotions, even unconsciously. For example, an assertive response (instead of a passive or aggressive one) can help move the other person to become more assertive, rather than aggressive.
There is more about this in our pages on Assertiveness and particularly in our page on Dealing with Non-Assertive Behaviour.
One of the most important things to understand is that it probably isn’t personal: you are simply in the ‘firing line’. You therefore don’t need to take it personally, and become defensive, because it isn’t a criticism of you.
The Importance of Listening and Accepting
We all want to be listened to, especially when we are talking about something that is important to us.
One of the main triggers for aggression is a feeling of frustration or anger.
You may recognise these emotions in someone else, or you may come into contact with someone who is showing the signs of aggression (see our page on What is Aggression? for more about these).
When you do so, it is important to allow the other person time to express themselves fully. Listen to what they have to say and to encourage them to tell you the problem. An open, friendly approach helps to define your relationship as a supportive one, rather than one of confrontation. Show empathy and understanding about their situation.
It can be especially helpful to recognise and reflect the other person’s emotional responses. This shows that you have understood not just the situation, but also their feelings. You can also say how sorry you are that they feel like this.
“I can see that this has made you really angry, and I’m not surprised. It sounds really awful.”
“I can tell that you’re really upset about this. I’m really sorry you’ve been made to feel like this.”
Care should be taken not to reinforce aggressive behaviour, particularly through behaving angrily or defensively yourself.
Factors That Reduce Aggressive Behaviour
There are a number of factors that make an individual less likely to behave aggressively. These may be related to the individual, the environment, or the other people involved.
For example, individuals who are fairly passive by nature will be less likely to become aggressive. People are also less likely to be aggressive if they have experience of aggressive behaviour not being rewarded, or believe that aggression is unlikely to help.
Individuals are also less likely to become aggressive if they:
Feel safe and unthreatened;
Expect to be treated with respect, perhaps because of previous experience in that environment or with that person;
Understand the behaviour that is expected, or the social norms; or
Are able to communicate effectively.
A calm environment, where most people feel comfortable, and where people are treated with respect, is therefore less likely to generate aggression. It is also much harder to be aggressive if everyone around you is behaving calmly and respectfully towards each other and you.
If you work in an organisation that regularly has to deal with aggressive people, you may find it helpful to consider whether you could make any changes to the environment that might make aggression less likely.
For example, a less formal environment, or a more egalitarian approach, may be less intimidating—and therefore less threatening—than desks and barriers. Offering a cup of tea, or a glass of water, as a routine part of a meeting, may also help to build a relationship of care from the start. Something as simple as placing a computer screen so that the other person can see it can help to make the relationship more equal, especially if you have to make notes during the encounter.
Defusing Aggression in Others
There are a number of techniques for dealing with aggression, including both verbal and non-verbal behaviours.
These techniques will be particularly helpful for anyone who has to manage aggression in the course of their professional life.
Non-verbal behaviours that can help to defuse aggression include:
Being aware of your own body language and showing a non-threatening, open stance.
Keeping good eye contact but ensuring this does not appear confrontational.
Moving slowly and steadily. Try to keep your physical movements calm.
Respecting the other person’s personal space.
Verbal behaviours that will help to encourage assertive responses include:
Listening to what the other person has to say and accepting, recognising and emphasising positive aspects of what is being said—without minimising the negatives.
Showing respect through polite formalities, but aiming to work towards familiarity.
Showing understanding and empathy with the person by reflecting, clarifying and summarising their thoughts and feelings.
Avoiding any expression of power, for example "You must calm down".
Encouraging the other person to take responsibility for their own behaviour and to direct it into more creative or positive outlets, e.g., by making a written complaint rather than verbally criticising someone/an organisation.
See also our section: Assertiveness
Coping with Aggression After the Event
People vary widely in their reactions to the experience of other people’s aggression.
How a person reacts can depend on many factors such as previous experiences and exposure to aggression, upbringing, norms of behaviour, gender, culture, age, health, and expectations as well as physiological differences and reactions to stress in general.
Ways of coping with aggression after it has happened include:
Refer to any guidelines of your organisation.
Report the event to a supervisor.
Tell others about your experience. Expressing feelings and reactions can help you to come to terms with what has happened and to understand that many such reactions are a normal response to hostile behaviour.
Attempt to analyse what has happened, why the other person behaved as they did and your reactions. Discuss this with a supervisor or other member of your organisation.
Be aware of possible symptoms that may follow such an experience, e.g. feelings of anxiety, disturbed sleep, constantly recalling the event, recurring dreams, physical reactions, depression or difficulties in concentration.
Do not underplay the stress of an event, either to yourself or to others. Do not allow others to treat it as minor. If it distresses you then it is important to deal with it.
A final thought
To develop an understanding of aggressive behaviour, it is important for people to recognise their own feelings and how they react and deal with aggression—both within themselves and in others. The first line of defence is very definitely not attack, in this case—it is self-control.
Listening to people, and treating them as human beings, can go a very long way to helping you to defuse aggression in others. Very few people actually want to be angry and aggressive.