How to cope with increased aggression in a pandemic world

Non-violent communication is essential to defuse violent and aggressive behaviour. David Liddle provides five simple steps to help frontline employees deal with this prevalent problem.

A supermarket retail assistant comes off the shop floor in floods of tears after being on the receiving end of a barrage of abuse from a customer who has taken umbrage at being asked to wear a face mask.

A receptionist in the A&E department goes home exhausted and demoralised after being threatened by an angry patient who is demanding they be pushed to the front of the queue to see a doctor.

Sadly, these incidents are not uncommon. Violence and aggression towards frontline workers has been a problem in the UK for some time – and the pandemic has only served to exacerbate the situation.

Organisations, mindful of their duty of care towards employees, are responding to this in a number of ways. Posters proclaiming zero tolerance of aggressive and disrespectful behaviour towards staff are pinned up on the walls of waiting rooms and business premised everywhere you look.

Earlier this year, high street retailers including Co-op, Tesco, Boots and Sainsburys were reported to be issuing their staff with body cameras to deter violence and protect staff.

These policies and initiatives clearly have their place in workplaces where we are seeing an alarming rise in both the amount and ferocity of conflict. But they are only part of the picture. Equally important is the need to train frontline staff with the skills and strategies to be able to prevent these combative situations arising in the first place – and to de-escalate them safely when they do.

A rising tide of aggression

Key to tackling the issue is to first develop an understanding of where these unprecedented levels of anti-social behaviour towards staff are coming from. Partly, it is because as a nation, we have become much more vocal about complaining when we feel that we have been treated unfairly or that customer service isn’t up to scratch. 

This increasing willingness to speak out is not a bad thing in itself – the problem is that we are often not equipped to articulate our concerns or complaints in a constructive and respectful manner. 

The heightened emotions and sense of loss we are all feeling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are also playing a role. People are stressed about the virus, anxious about their own and their families’ health, and  frustrated at being locked down for so long. Hardly surprising that this sense of injustice and the resulting pent-up emotions are increasing spilling over into abusive behaviour.

What’s interesting is that the people who are shouting, jumping up and down and waving their arms around often know that this isn’t a strategy which will result in their problem being solved or their needs being met. They have literally been hijacked by their brain and body, which is flooding them with adrenalin and cortisol (the stress hormones) and sending them into ‘attack’ mode.

Of course the natural response from the person on the receiving end is often to become defensive and to meet fire with fire, which only serves to make a bad situation worse. I have seen this first hand at an NHS Trust recently, where staff were struggling to dealing with complaints and criticism from the family members of patients. 

While the receptionists, nurses and doctors were doing their best to be empathetic, helpful and professional, they lacked the confidence and competence to move the conversation to a place of mutual understanding. 

Situations were not being resolved – leaving staff feeling demoralised, disrespected and constantly under attack. They needed help understanding how to deal with intense emotional outbursts and how to respond in a non-defensive way.

L&D professionals need to help their people find ways to break this attack/defend cycle and to equip them with the skills to engage in non-violent communication (NVC) as a way of resolving issues.


Five key strategies

The first step for any employee involved in an aggressive confrontation is to do a rapid risk assessment of the situation. If someone is clearly high on drugs or brandishing a weapon, the appropriate response is always to remove themselves to a place of safety and call the police.

Most situations, thankfully, do not fall into that category, and can be successfully managed drawing on the following five pieces of advice:

  • Build a personal connection. The simple act of introducing yourself and asking the other person to do the same can do much to get a situation onto a more positive footing. If people feel they have no connection with you, it is easy for them to engage in adversarial behaviour, as they can disassociate from you as an individual. Starting to create a link, however small, is a powerful first step to defusing aggression.
  • Listen well. People become angry because they feel their needs are not being met in some way and they are experiencing a sense of loss. If you can understand the unmet need, you are half way to being able to reframe the situation. Let the person speak without interruption and really listen to what they have to say, asking questions for clarification if needed. You may not be able to give people what they are asking for, but you can set the tone of the conversation and ensure that they feel heard and respected.
  • Mind your language. Try to avoid accusatory language and move towards more observational conversation. ‘What I am seeing is that you are upset and need to talk about this…Let’s go and sit down somewhere quiet and discuss it…let me make a request that you don’t shout at me and we will both listen to each other…’  The language of NVC can make a real difference.
  • Watch your unconscious biases. Avoid subtle and often unconscious micro-aggressions – labelling a woman as ‘hysterical’ for example, giving someone less attention or respect because they are young or not making the effort to pronounce a difficult name correctly. Be aware of your own triggers and make sure you are not unintentionally making the situation worse.
  • Look for mutual gain. Focus on how to achieve a win-win. How can you work together with the person to try and find a way of meeting at least some of their needs, as well as yours.

There is enormous benefit to be had from training employees with the skills to deal effectively with abusive, aggressive or violent situations. Staff who can see that their employer is going beyond the words of a zero tolerance policy and are actively supporting them in developing these critical competencies are likely to be much more engaged, motivated and focused on their jobs.

The social and emotional skills they will learn are also highly transferrable – providing L&D professionals with a an opportunity to improve customer service and to build a the transformational cultures  organisations will need post-pandemic; cultures which are fair, just, inclusive, compassionate and collaborative.


About the author

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group, and founding president of the Institute of Organisational Dynamics


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