Clients who are verbally or physically aggressive

One of my first roles as a young graduate was working as a Counsellor at a drug rehabilitation centre. I was very excited, enthusiastic, and fresh-faced. But I was also somewhat naïve. 

I imagined that all of my clients would want to see me, would work hard to help themselves, and then be highly appreciative of my efforts. Although this was true for many, for others, I was in for a rude shock. 

Some clients were literally dragged in by their family members to see me. Others seemed to work actively against their best interests. And a few directed their frustrations and unhappiness towards me, sometimes in a powerful way.

Over the past 30 years, I have been spat on, had knives pulled on me, been stalked by one client, and on countless occasions have been verbally abused. 

I have worked with hundreds of couples who openly detested each other; many who were caught in a silent, cold war; others where one person had a long history of controlling and abusive behaviour. 

I have refereed many hostile conversations, broken up numerous fights, some of them physical. I used to think if anyone was allowed to be cynical about relationships, then surely it would be me. 

Although I have had my moments, I have kept some perspective by seeing progress with many of these clients. I have also had examples of very good relationships around me. 

From workplaces I have supported over the years, I know that others have their challenging clients as well. 

Looking back, there have been many occasions with clients, where I could have handled things much better. I have learned the hard way that …

  1. While the majority of our clients will be a pleasure to work with, we can’t be on automatic pilot. We need to be open to feedback and alert to the risk factors, which alert us to the need to take a different course of action.
  2. We have to have plans and backup plans for responding to a range of challenging behaviours, from settling frustrated clients to responding to verbal or physical aggression. Certainly, the way we respond can make a bad situation one that is much, much worse.  
  3. Working well and safely with clients who are demanding or aggressive involves skills that can be learned. The good news is that the more we are alert to what helps, the more flexible and confident we become in responding. 
  4. Workplaces can also help by putting systems into place to minimise the risk to team members. For an emergency such as a fire, for example, systems and procedures are certainly put into place and rehearsed by most workplaces.

Similarly, we don’t have to wait until someone is verbally or physically assaulted before better systems are put into place. Workplaces also have a moral and legal obligation to ensure the safety of their employees.

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