Four steps for handling aggressive behaviour

That difficult customer or co-worker is screaming abuse. You’re tempted to run away. But you need to sort the situation out quickly. What can you do? Try these four techniques for handling aggressive behaviour in the workplace.

Reframe their actions

Reframing involves changing the meaning you give to a situation. For example, you’ve planned a picnic for tomorrow. But you’ve just heard it’s going to rain. Instead of seeing this as a disaster, you can reframe it as an opportunity to have a cosy meal inside. Shifting your perception this way helps you feel better.

Similarly, you can reframe others’ aggressive or difficult behaviours by shifting your own perspective. Doing this helps you manage the stress reaction which can be triggered when you’re handling aggressive people. For example, your boss has just loudly pointed out several mistakes in a report you wrote. You could see this as an attack on your work. Or you could see it as a sign your boss is passionate about getting things right.

Handling aggression

Find something to agree with

Agreeing with an aggressive person often shocks them into silence. The last thing they expect when they scream at you is the response ‘You’re right.’ So use words of agreement to derail an aggressive attack or to handle others’ anger. You don’t have to agree with everything they’ve said. You just have to agree with something. For example, try saying:

  • I agree this is important
  • I agree we need to sort this out
  • I agree it’s time for us to talk

Gang up on the problem, not each other

If an aggressive person is standing directly in front of you, you need to change the dynamics of the situation. Shifting behavioural dynamics means you’re handling aggressive behaviour assertively. Start by grabbing a piece of paper or a whiteboard. Write the name of the issue at the top. Then invite the other person to sit down and sort the problem out. This will break their antagonistic stance and force them to communicate in a different way. That’s because the new spatial set-up signals ‘We’re working together to beat this problem.’

Use solution focused language

Never let difficult people harp on about what’s wrong. Instead, shift their attention to how to sort things out using collaborative problem solving. Respond to aggressive verbal attacks by signalling your intention to resolve the situation. Don’t get hooked into defending yourself when other people are resorting to aggressive behaviour. Instead, redirect the conversation towards solution finding. Phrases you can use to do this include:

  • Let’s talk about how to solve this
  • What steps do you think we can take to sort this out?
  • What can we do to change this situation?
  • What can we do to improve things?

Used together, these four techniques can calm down heated situations and transform aggressors into collaborators. Find out more about how to use them in Eleanor Shakiba’s upcoming book Difficult People Made Easy. Or book Eleanor to train your team in how to deal with difficult people at work.

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