As we grew up and developed our ability to communicate, we ‘discovered’ a new way of dealing with difficult situations. Perhaps our repertoire had only contained temper tantrums and sulking, but being able to speak allowed us to try to talk our way out of the difficulty: ‘It wasn’t me, it was him’, ‘I’ll tell my mummy on you’, ‘It fell!’ and so on. Parents and teachers encouraged us to develop this facility, obviously more socially acceptable than tantrums or sulking. Through our adolescence into adulthood, our learning proceeded often with great sophistication. We learned that it wasn’t just what we said that could influence a situation, it was how we said it (tone, pitch, loudness), and also the language given off by our body posture and movements. Moving into the ‘people business’ probably spurred us to even greater learning. These ‘people’ skills are usually our first line of defence, certainly when we are confronted with verbal aggression and intimidation. However, when our judgement is that we are out of our depth and that we do not have control of our safety, then we should be looking for more than our ‘people’ skills. Firstly, we may be able to look to our support systems – is help available and accessible? Of course, support systems have to be planned before an incident occurs, so we need to look, for example, at assistance alarms: Is there one? How does it work? Does it work? When was it last tried? Do staff know what’s expected of them when it is used?, and so on. Also, community-based staff should examine their traceability systems, and ask the same searching questions. Secondly, if danger of injury is real or imminent, staff should most seriously consider removing themselves from the danger. Even where staff have a powerful duty of care in relation to service users – for example, where there is a high level of dependency, leaving such a dangerous situation should be seriously considered in order to mobilise more appropriate assistance to bring safety back into the situation. Thirdly, where staff feel in danger of imminent damage and are prevented from removing themselves, the law permits the use of reasonable force in self-protection. It must be the minimum necessary to allow escape from the danger, but how is that measured? Some staff have found their ‘self-defence’ behaviour investigated by managers and police, and have faced suspension and even prosecution for assault. That being said, staff should seriously consider protecting themselves physically if the alternative is injury or worse. Fourthly, some staff in specialist settings have access to additional skills of breakaway and control and restraint. Thankfully, for most of us most of the time, our people skills are sufficient. These consist of firstly and importantly keeping our cool, and most of us have developed a repertoire of tried and tested methods. Getting calmness into a situation is strongly influenced by our approach, the interest and concern we show, the attitudes we give off, and a general air of helpfulness. Good listening skills are paramount at this stage. The aim is to give attention and to understand what is wrong. Empathy from staff should be balanced by good information-giving skills – while we understand where they are coming from, they have to understand where we are coming from. To help achieve resolution, our problem-solving skills may be brought in to play – for example: Is there an alternative or compromise? Perhaps we can refer on? Can we explain about the complaints procedure? Remember: we can only calm and defuse a situation by consent; if the angry person is determined to create mayhem or injury, there may be little our ‘people’ skills can do.

Willie More

Learning resources to help you manage violence and aggression issues and other situations that can arise when dealing with people can be viewed by clicking on the Learn more! button.