While trouble can apparently flare up unannounced, it is more usual for difficult situations to develop and for there to be signs within the situation that can alert staff to possible or developing danger. Wise staff will obviously be monitoring an individual’s behaviour for warning signs, but they will also be aware of two other considerations that perhaps can give them forewarning. The first of these is understanding the agency, its service, how it works in meeting people’s expectations, and so on. Knowing that they cannot provide what people want will alert staff to potential difficulty. Indeed, any occasion when staff have to tell people things they don’t want to hear is a potential hot-spot. Similarly, some places pose greater threat than others – for example, working in isolation, in lifts, and so on, as do some times (out-of-hours, in the dark, and so on). And, of course, some people are ‘known troublemakers’, and some conditions may lead to unpredictable behaviour which can leave staff feeling vulnerable – for example, where alcohol or drugs have been misused, where there is a florid psychotic disorder, and so on. A particular and well-known feature of many agencies which can contribute to the evolution of dangerous situations is being kept waiting. Therefore wise staff will be aware of waiting-times and take appropriate action. A second consideration for wise staff is themselves. Can they be aware of when their sensitivity can be dulled by, for example, pressure, preoccupation, tiredness, feeling one degree under, and so on? This is when they may fail to pick up a cue or else do or say something that may make the situation worse. Self-awareness is a significant defence against danger. However, when we think of warning signs, we usually mean those given by the upset or angry person. Firstly, there may be verbal warning signs, such as verbal threats (which should be acknowledged), repetition of the same words and phrases (which should be tackled by diversion and breaking the pattern), and dehumanising language, such as foul language and sexist or racist abuse (which should be met with a warning to stop and then termination of interview or phone call). An angry person will often talk loudly or shout, but we should not be fooled by the quiet aggression or calmly spoken person. There may be some non-verbal cues that should forewarn us. Most reception staff will have met the ‘tutter’ or ‘sigher’ in the queue waiting for attention, shaking the head and moving from one foot to another. Agitation can often be recognised by a restlessness, the clenching and unclenching of fists, and constant movement. Threatening behaviour should always be taken seriously, such as ‘in your face’, eye-balling, the pointing or poking finger, and a towering posture. Violent behaviour should signal greater danger – for example, banging a fist on the table, hitting the walking-stick on the floor, or throwing papers back at staff. It may be only a short step from violence against inanimate objects to violence against the staff. Where service users are known, staff should also be watchful for any inconsistent or changed behaviour. Also, there may be individual and perhaps idiosyncratic signs peculiar to some service users and known by staff. Finally, although not technically a warning sign, the presence of potential weapons can make violence more likely. It appears that simply the sight of anything that could be used as a weapon can lead to it actually being used as a weapon – for example, the thrown coffee mug, the flying computer or the walking stick that has temporarily become a club. Removing what could be a weapon or fixing it to the wall or floor will be one less thing to have to worry about when faced with difficulty.

Willie More

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