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Dealing with aggression.

By Stephan Moons

Aggression can come in many forms. It can be...

  • what is said (word language)
  • the way something is said (voice language)
  • what is done (body language)

Insulting language, an aggressive tone of voice, threatening gestures or unwanted physical contact can be very intimidating. It is not exactly what we are normally looking for.

Whenever you feel aggression your unique warning system has picked up signals that your personal space has been invaded beyond your levels of comfort. 

As a matter of fact you are the only one to determine when there is an act of aggression towards you. 

There is no such thing as a standard scale that determines what is considered to be aggression and what isn't. 

When you find the courage to stand up against aggression you should never accept reactions such as:

  • You shouldn't feel intimidated. 
  • You are being too sensitive here. 
  • Come on, where is your sense of humor. 
  • I was just joking. 

People respond to aggression in different ways depending on their behavioural style.

DISC, a model that I teach, describes 4 distinct behavioural styles. Although we are all a unique blend of these 4 styles we all have a preferential style that we resort to when we are under stress... as is the case with aggression.
Each style seems to be driven by a distinct emotion:

  • D-style: anger
  • I-style: joy
  • S-style: melancholy
  • C-style: fear

Depending on your preferential style you might opt for one of the following intuitive responses when faced with aggressive behaviour:

  1. Fight back - Who do you think you are! You are asking for it!
  2. Retreat - I don't want this. I want to get away from this situation as soon as possible. 
  3. Wait and see - I don't believe what I am seeing here! What's the matter with this guy? I’ll just ignore him.

These 3 intuitive reactions have served us well for millennia but are in their extreme forms no longer effective in our modern and complex society.

But just because these automatic life-saving reactions have served us so well, it is hard to let go of them and think about more adapted options able to disentangle derailing communications.

Who wants to quit his proven 'survival' strategies?

Clearly, there is a higher demand for training and coaching that teaches people to deal with aggression.
More customer-related cases of aggression are reported. Why? It’s my personal opinion that we are submitted to more pressure in a technological world that processes data faster than we can grasp. We are under lots of pressure and are not looking for additional hassle when communicating with a supplier, service provider or a civil servant. If we don’t get what we want we might get impatient, upset end eventually lose our temper.

People may shout, threaten, insult, come too close, wave their arms when they don’t get what they expect.

Authority, uniforms and titles are rather questioned than respected:

  • "Filling out this form doesn’t make any sense. It’s a waste of time!"
  • "I paid good money. Don’t give me excuses. I want a working product now!"
  • "Being a specialist doesn’t give you the right to make me wait for hours. Just get organised! I have other things to do!"
  • "What do you mean the hotel is overbooked? Don’t give me that crap. I’m not leaving this desk until I have a room."

Health Care Specialists, Service Providers, Call Center Operators are suddenly confronted with highly assertive customers who now and then cross the border of respectful communication.

However intimidating, aggression doesn’t always need to be the end of the road.
There are ways to calm down the other person and and re-engage in a safe and constructive dialogue.

Of course I am not talking about the guy who starts smashing up your shop because he isn’t pleased with your service. In that case there is only one rule:
Get yourself into safety as soon as possible and ask for help!!!

In many cases the right attitude and adapted communication can do a lot.

I was reminded of this when I overheard an emergency nurse speaking up to a shouting patient in a controlled but firm tone while maintaining eye-contact:

"Sir, you are shouting at me and coming too close. I want you to maintain a distance and lower your voice now. I can understand that this is an unpleasant situation for you, but only if you stop shouting and maintain a distance I can listen to you and work this out. Can you do this for me?"

Suddenly the patient seemed to snap out of it and became a lot more civil.

Aggressive people are looking for one thing: A T T E N T I O N
Somehow they have lost the ability to calmly tell what they need.

So the patient continued with a lowered voice:

"What the hell is going on here?"
(Looking for control and information...)

The emergency nurse picked up the patient's real need and replied appropriately:

"I can see that all this is puzzling to you. Shall I tell you exactly what is going to happen next and why this is taking longer than expected?"

Last thing that I heard:

"I am sorry. I didn't mean to shout..."

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