POLITE is an acronym which can help you remember how to avoid, detect and handle a conflict situation:
We will use the word client to indicate the other person, although of course it could be anybody from a patient to a colleague.
When dealing with a potentially aggressive client you need to think about your position in relation to a number of things; mainly
- Where are you in relation to your client?
- Where are you in relation to your exit?
Where are you in relation to your client?
Firstly, are you in a higher or lower position than your client? Are you sitting with your client standing over you? This isn’t a good position to be in if your client is being aggressive or pushy, so it might be a good idea for you to stand up. Find an excuse to get to your feet and take a step back and create some distance. As well as being a safer option, if conflict escalates to violence, this also sends a non-verbal message to your client that you are rising to his or her challenge and won’t be brow beaten.
Secondly, is your client close enough to attack you? In order to strike you, an aggressor needs to be within rage to do so. One of the main precursors to attack is to move towards the victim. If you see this happening, you have the opportunity to create some distance and to get something such as a piece of furniture between you and your aggressor.
Thirdly, are you invading their personal space? This is one of the best ways to aggravate someone, so make sure you keep a respectful distance, especially if you have very little rapport with the client.
Where are you in relation to your exit?
This is something to think about before you come into contact with clients. You need to make sure that you can easily get to your exit, preferably without having to go around an aggressive client in order to get there. As well as being able to get to your exit, you should also be able to get through the exit easily – an exit that takes fiddling to get through is not going to help you in a conflict situation.
It is also a good idea for your client to be able to get to an exit easily, as being blocked in can cause stress and agitation, and this can escalate a potential conflict situation.
If you find yourself in a position where an aggressive client is between you and your exit and an excuse to leave the room is not working, then you may need to resort to a physical approach, such as the Zoning out technique. This is only applicable in a situation where you feel that your client is about to attack.
The best way to avoid being physically assaulted in a conflict situation is to see it coming and get out of the way. By staying sharp, you can spot the warning signs and do something pre-emptively, whether that is calming the client down or leaving the room.
Among the early warning signs that a client is becoming agitated are
- Head-pecking or moving the chin forward and/or down in a primitive gesture to protect the throat
- Ballooning, to make themselves look bigger by puffing out the chest and extending the arms
- Fidgeting, perhaps foot tapping, hand wringing or humming
- A change in skin tone and/or colour
- Pupil dilation.
The strongest indicators that an aggressor is going to attack are that
- The distance between you and the aggressor is closing down
- The other person is dropping into single syllable speech.
Using your common sense when you notice these warning signs will allow you to judge whether the client simply needs some more attention or whether you need to think about making an exit or calling security.
We can listen in different ways, and the way we listen has an impact on how the speaker feels. You can think of listening as happening at five different levels.
Take a moment and imagine how you would feel as a speaker when on the receiving end of each of these levels of listening.
- Pretend listening
- Selective listening
- Attentive listening
- Empathic listening.
Often, all an agitated client wants in the short term is to be listened to, acknowledged and reassured. By listening empathically and trying to see your client’s problem from their perspective, you can build rapport and offer an understanding and sympathetic ear to set your client at their ease.
Your client is a person just like you, and if they feel that you care about them, they are more likely to trust you and more likely to be patient and calm while you solve their problem.
See the topic on Listening Skills.
Your intuition or instinct is often vastly underestimated and trusting it can warn you of potentially dangerous situations.
You could think of your intuition as your unconscious mind gathering and collating huge amounts of sensory information, the vast majority of which never comes to the attention of your conscious mind. This information includes things such as micro-muscle movements in another person’s face, incredibly small postural changes, pheromones and minute tonal variations in speech. Your unconscious uses a kind of fuzzy logic pattern matching to look for patterns within this information that match with previous experience. If it finds a pattern, it presents this to the conscious mind as a hunch or feeling.
The hunch generated by intuition can be quite subtle, and some people are more aware of their hunches than others. This is a skill that can be practised. See the topic on Intuition.
Trust your intuition, particularly if you work alone out in the field.
For more information on intuition see Want to know more? The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.
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.
Rapport: pace and lead
You can use rapport to influence The behaviour spiral. When you have achieved rapport with someone, they will tend to follow your lead, so if you calm down, they will calm down. The trick is to first gain sufficient rapport with someone who is angry and upset and then to initiate de-escalation.
One thing people often mistakenly try and do when confronted with someone who is angry is to display extreme calmness and/or say things like ‘calm down’. To the angry person, this is quite provocative and can lead to even greater anger. They want to be acknowledged, to be noticed, to be seen to be having an impact, to feel significant. If someone responds to their anger by being calm, it can feel to the angry person that they are being dismissed and that their grievance is not sufficiently important.
One of the principal ways to attain rapport with another person is to match aspects of their behaviour. Where talking is concerned, you can match things such as speed of speech, volume, pitch and also things that go together with talking, such as the gestures being used to reinforce what is being said.
Once you have gained rapport by pacing your client, you will then be able to lead them to a lower energy and calmer state.
Your goal is to help the client feel acknowledged and understand that you accept there is something that needs sorting out. This does not mean that you have to agree with them. You could say (in an energetic sounding voice to match theirs) things like...
Sounds as if you had a tough time. No wonder you feel strongly about it. We need to do something about this, so how can we work together to get it sorted?
If that had happened to me I would be pretty annoyed about it too. We have to do something about this.
This process of pacing and leading often takes only a few seconds. It will help them feel acknowledged, and this is usually the turning point. Think back to your own experiences of being angry about something. The chances are that once you felt acknowledged, you were then prepared to collaborate with someone to get to a solution to the problem.
This is the same principle as matching an aspect of your client’s behaviour to gain rapport, only here you are using some of the same words as your client. This gives the impression that you are similar and that you really understand at a core level.
You may also find Transactional Analysis useful here.
The principle of a softening frame is to ‘soften up’ your client before, for example, asking them an awkward question. For instance, you might pay them a compliment first (in context of course) and then ask your question.
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.
Here are a few important pointers to remember about eye contact:
Eye contact can also be a pointer to attack: an aggressor is likely to make eye contact with you before they move in for direct conflict.
- Too much eye contact might be seen as challenging, aggressive, intimidating or staring. You don’t want to seem as if you are trying to stare your client down.
- What might be appropriate eye contact for you might not be appropriate for your client. Remember that different cultures value different amounts of eye contact.