Violence and Agression

by Darren Good and Liz Hudson

In a nutshell

1. Violence at work

The Health and Safety Executive defines workplace violence as any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.

  • Violence is becoming increasingly common where people work in contact with customers, clients, crowds and the general public.
  • Costs to employers include the consequences of high staff turnover, low morale, expensive insurance premiums and compensation payments.


2. How does violence arise?

Violence at work begins with conflict, and conflicts begin where people have different ideas on what ‘should’ happen. Differences escalate to conflict where one party seeks to get their own way, regardless of the effect on the other, the rights of the other and any reasonable boundaries.

  • Most aggression starts with an anger trigger in the form of transgressions, irritants or costs.
  • Our impulse to lose our temper is controlled by our inhibitions, made up of the fear of repercussions and consequences, how we have been brought up, and social and cultural norms.
  • You cannot judge the aggression inhibition of another by your own standards.


3. The behaviour spiral

Our emotional state affects our behaviour, and our behaviour influences the emotional state and attitude of the people with whom we come into contact and interact. In order to gain better influence and control over interactive situations with clients and colleagues, we must first learn to control our own emotional state. In a conflict situation

  • Keep breathing more deeply and slowly, and you will notice your state change
  • Smile, even if you don’t feel like it just yet
  • Having slowed down your breathing, relax the tension in your body
  • Consider using a pattern interrupt.


4. The role of fear

When you come into contact with a fear stimulus, you will, to a greater or lesser degree, experience the fight-or-flight reaction, which determines whether you will defend yourself or run away. In a conflict situation, fear can either help or hinder us: adrenaline can give us speed, strength, flexibility, resistance to pain, stamina and faster reflexes; on the other hand, if we can’t handle it, it can make us freeze or over-react.

  • One way to learn how to manage fear is by making a fear pyramid and gradually exposing yourself to your fears until you are used to the effects of adrenaline.
  • Another way is to practise extending your peripheral range of vision, which has a naturally calming effect.



POLITE is an acronym which can help you remember how to avoid, detect and handle a conflict situation.

  • Position – where are you in relation to your opponent and your exit?
  • Observe the situation for warning signs, especially noticing if the distance between you is closing down or the other person has dropped into single syllable speech.
  • Listen empathically to build rapport.
  • Intuition can be developed as a useful warning guide.
  • Talking to your client is one of the best ways of building rapport with them, and rapport is important as then you can much more easily influence their mood.
  • Eye contact is a very important factor to consider when building rapport with someone as it is one of the most basic connections you can make.


6. Conflict on the phone

In the interests of professionalism and to avoid being verbally assaulted, it is important to learn how to handle and control conflict on the telephone.

  • Try to establish rapport as soon as you pick up the phone.
  • Ask for the client’s name and number.
  • Have some pattern interrupts up your sleeve.
  • Maintain a positive tone and posture.


7. Environmental calming and control

There are lots things you can do to reduce anger and bad feelings before you even come into contact with clients.

  • If you have a waiting room, is it clean, tidy and soothing, and do you have distraction tactics in place to make waiting more enjoyable?
  • Is your secretary or receptionist well trained and able to answer questions?
  • Do you have adequate security measures?
  • If you have a consultation room, is exit easy both for you and for your client?


8. Threat assessments for lone workers

It is virtually impossible for an employer to assess every location that an employee will visit ahead of time, especially if you or your subordinates are visiting people in their homes and personal environments, and the same goes for the route that you might take to get to a destination.

  • Make sure you can get to your car and open it quickly.
  • Park so you can drive away quickly.
  • Avoid letting a client lock the door after you.
  • Prepare excuses in advance.


9. Your duties as a manager

Employers and, by extension, their managers, have a duty to protect their employees. This duty of care extends to other people who come into contact with their organisation, including customers, delivery drivers, contractors and other visitors.

  • Implement the four-stage process advised by the Health and Safety Executive.
  • Check whether your organisation has a policy document concerning work-related violence and make sure you are familiar with it.
  • Ensure that your staff have all the ideas and skills they need to carry out their jobs safely and with confidence.
  • Have a plan for post-incident management in place.


10. Assault and defence law

The Criminal Justice Act 1988 provides that assault is a summary offence with a maximum sentence on conviction of six months’ imprisonment or fine. The act does not provide a definition of the offence; the relevant rules are found in common law.

  • Any act which makes you fear for your safety constitutes assault.
  • If the antagonist (attacker) is aggressive and moving forward, and you fear for your safety, you can legally, pre-emptively strike the first blow in self-defence.
  • If an attacker is moving away from you, you may not follow and strike them – in this scenario you have assaulted them.
  • You may meet force with force and use up to and including 25 per cent more force than your attacker in order to defend yourself.


11. Introduction to physical defence

In an ideal world, a conflict situation would never be allowed to escalate to such a level that it becomes necessary for you to have to physically defend yourself. However, should the occasion arise, there are simple yet effective ways to help you do so, including

  • The fence
  • Jamming
  • Zoning out
  • Breakaway from a single-handed grip
  • Breakaway from a double-handed grip
  • Breakaway from a fire hose grip
  • Breakaway from a strangle.