Dealing with aggressive clients: Part two

Although the most common type of aggression is verbal, there are times when it can easily escalate and your safety can be at risk.

So, if you deal with aggressive people on a regular basis or you simply want to be proactive, here are some ideas on what you can do before an incident occurs.

  1. Set clear expectations: Here you need to be clear about the key expectations you have for respectful behaviour. One health clinic I know has a sign saying ‘Keep it respectful. No shouting, swearing or bullying. Do the right thing and this will help us to work with you.' Other times, regular clients are spoken to privately about the need to keep their volume down or not to use certain words in this workplace.

    Some people have grown up in families where such ‘colourful' words are not considered swear words at all. Feedback, when given, needs to be done in a face-saving way for the client. I might say, "That language is fine by me, but some people get upset by it ..."
  2. Assess the risk: By thinking ahead about situations likely to arise you can be better prepared. If you work in a medical practice, for example, then you can safely assume that some of your patients will get testy about not being able to see the doctor straight away. By anticipating likely frustrations and how a certain person has behaved in the past, you can plan ahead so that you respond well. For example, you may be able to have them see a nurse straight away even if they cannot see their doctor.

    If someone is intoxicated, this can help you to be prepared for unexpected behaviour and to stay out of arms reach! If a patient is eye-balling you, repeating themselves, making threats, acting out of character, or acting in other intimidating ways, these are all signs that your safety is at risk. Trusting your gut feeling is important here as often your subconscious mind is registering signals that are indicating danger.

  3. Manage the environment: For a start, don't allow yourself to be alone with very volatile clients. If you are doing home visits with volatile or unstable clients, at least take a colleague with you. It is also important to stay out of arms reach and to know where the exits are. Can you set up your office so you can easily exit if needed? Can you put out of reach sharp or blunt instruments that can be used as a weapon?

    Does your workplace need duress buttons installed that can be used if staff are feeling at risk? Yes, these systems can be expensive, but I have known schools to purchase a wireless doorbell, locating the button at the reception desk and the chime in an area where Admin staff can hear the alert and lend their support when needed.

  4. Use code words: These are innocuous phrases that are secret communication between you and your colleagues. ‘Please ask Mr Steed to see me' might mean ‘Please ask others to lend their physical support' whereas ‘Please call Mr Steed' might mean ‘Please call the police'. I heard a story recently of hospital nurses who use the phrase ‘Code Pink' to alert other nurses to lend their support whenever a particular doctor was acting in an intimidating way. You can imagine the misogynist who is suddenly surrounded by a lot of women. All hail Pink Power!

Now of course you can use the de-fusing strategies I spoke about in Part One, but there are times when a customer's aggressive behaviour passes your limit for what you can tolerate, or you feel that your safety or that of your colleagues is at risk.

Here you can use your martial arts training if you wish. But keep in mind that any force that you use will need to be considered ‘reasonable' by the courts. So giving that rude, demanding customer a karate chop to the back of their neck will probably not be seen too favourably by the police, but you will gain the respect of your colleagues not to mention a lot of personal satisfaction.

Here also are some other options.

  1. Change the audience: Sometimes simply asking if they would like to speak to your manager can be helpful. While it is very unfair that a client should be very rude to you, yet more respectful to your manager, sometimes people relate better to people who have a position of authority. Other times they relate better to a person with whom they simply make a better personal connection.

    You can also change the audience by moving the client away from people in the waiting room to whom they may be performing. Without an audience, some people behave more respectfully. Other times, the presence of other staff can improve that person's behaviour. So, if you see a staff member being intimidated by an aggressive client, at least lend your physical presence to see if this helps.
  2. Use time-out: You could excuse yourself for a few minutes to plot your revenge. Or you could also use this to give yourself and the client time to settle. You could say, ‘Excuse me for a few minutes while I look into this' and then go and make yourself a nice long cup of tea. With a regular client you could say, ‘I am not happy with the way you are speaking to me. I will speak to you about this later'. But then you need to make sure you reconnect when you said you would. Of course, it is also a valid option to give yourself a break by tag-teaming one of your co-workers to take over, provided they are happy to do so.

  3. Ask them to leave: Here their behaviour needs to be pretty awful to ask people to leave the premises. But if you do so, at least sound very firm as you do so and give an explanation. ‘Please leave now as this is upsetting for other people. If you don't leave, we will be calling the police.' When it comes to asking people to leave, you need to be out of arms reach and have your back to the exit, just in case.

  4. Call security or the police. If your workplace is fortunate enough to have their own security guard, they should have been contacted by now. If they have not been contacted, you are relying on the astuteness of your co-workers to understand why you are asking for Mr Steed, or notice your clever martial arts defence, so that they call the police.

  5. Exit: Here we are not talking about using time-out for a few minutes, but more getting yourself out of the customer's presence for your own and others' safety. If the aggressive person is not willing to leave, then you can at least ask others to move away. Some workplaces have code words which mean lock yourself into a secure room or exit the building. Many schools, for example, play the national anthem as a signal which means that an aggressive person is on the school grounds, the police have been called, and to lock the classrooms, preferably with the students inside.

Hopefully, you will never have to use the above strategies. But sadly I know of too many workplaces which wait until one of their staff have been assaulted before they put such measures in place. Don't be one of them.


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