Dealing with unexpected aggression
Do you know someone at work who accosts you unexpectedly, almost in hysterics, about something they are unhappy about? Do they choose bad times, speak very dramatically, and are so emotive they appear incapable of hearing what you have to say?
If such an incident was simply a one-off, it is easy to think they were just having a bad day. But for some of us, we are dealing with this kind of behaviour on a very regular basis.
Here are some options that may be a good fit for your situation.
Call for time-out if needed: Here you are calling for a better time to speak with them, giving the person a chance to settle and yourself a chance to regain some composure as well as prepare for the meeting. When organising another time to meet, I suggest you choose a time on the same day, if possible, so you don’t lose sleep stressing about the meeting.
If you plan to use this strategy, you will need some prepared scripts, ready to go, such as:
- I’m sorry, this is a bad time for me. Let’s arrange a better time …
- Can you tell me what your main concern is? OK, let’s arrange a time to speak about it properly.
Tell people what you would prefer: Here you are speaking about the specific behaviours you would like to see, that will make it easier for you to speak with them.
Yes, you shouldn’t have to tell people to lower their voice or to choose a more respectful tone. But some people are not aware of how they are coming across. There is also a chance that no-one has been brave enough to give them feedback. Here are some examples:
- Can you please lower your voice? That will make it easier for me to hear what you are saying.
- What will really help me is if you organise a time to raise these concerns, rather than catch me in the hallway / raise them unexpectedly at staff meetings
- I am happy to speak to you, but not in this way. Let’s watch how we are speaking to each other.
Balance perspectives: By this, I am referring to a balance of time given to 3 different perspectives.
The first perspective is how they are seeing things. Here you need to demonstrate you understand how they are seeing things and how they are feeling about it. A summary of what they have said is a good start. Sometimes, it can help if you agree with them where possible and apologise where you can.
But this focus also needs to be balanced with a second perspective – your own – where you respectfully share how you (or your workplace) is seeing the same situation.
The third perspective is what you are both looking for - solutions that take the perspectives of both of you into account. You may well have to set the agenda so greater balance is found between these three perspectives.
- I’m hearing that you have major concerns about this workplace change. Can I give you now my perspective on this?
- Would it be OK if we both have five minutes giving our opinion on this, before we brainstorm some solutions that take both our positions into account?
- When we meet this afternoon, let’s both come with some possible solutions.
Have some backup in place: Sometimes, it can help to have a third party present at that meeting, whose presence can moderate their behaviour.
For example, someone who is histrionic or disrespectful, may well be better behaved if your manager is present. If you find the right person as a backup, they may well be able to call the other person into line if they step outside of what is acceptable.
Can’t find the right person to sit in? Can you meet with them in a different place? Perhaps having a chat in a café, for example, can help to change the dynamics.
Whatever, you choose to do, make sure you take some notes (privately) about their behaviour and what you have done to turn it around. This makes it easier to gain the support of your manager if needed and to make a formal complaint if you go down that track.
Working with people who are upset or disrespectful is not always easy. Certainly, they need some empathy and respect. But the situation also requires some firmness from you, so your needs are also considered.