Recognising the Signs of Aggression

When working in a public-facing, customer service role, it is important to be able to recognise when somebody is displaying aggressive behaviour. It is also useful to be able to understand why someone is being aggressive or displaying frustration - what has triggered this behaviour and what can be done to resolve it.

By identifying certain signs, you may be able to prevent the escalation of a problem and successfully defuse the situation.

Sometimes it will be pretty obvious that someone is being aggressive – for example, if they are shouting and swearing at you!

The volume of their speech may increase and their tone of voice may become aggressive. They may even invade your personal space, or hit out at objects around them.

Other signs may be subtler. If you are with the customer in person, you may notice certain physical changes. They may become physically tense; they may clench their fists and may become noticeably anxious or restless. Some people may start to perspire, breathe rapidly or even shake. They may make intense or threatening eye contact, present a flushed complexion or go very pale. They may display aggressive body language or facial expressions.

The reasons why people become angry will vary according to the individual and the circumstances they are in. However, certain factors are common to many situations where aggression is exhibited.

The person’s goals have been obstructed in some way and the anger is displayed either in frustration or in the hope that the aggression will forcibly overcome the ‘obstruction’.

Similarly, if someone cannot communicate effectively, they may become frustrated and angry with themselves that they cannot get their point across. This can lead to aggressive behaviour towards others.

So, what happens when we are faced with confrontation?

Often, our body language will change instinctively to exhibit either defensiveness or aggression. You should therefore consciously try to ensure that your body language is open and non-aggressive.

Certain behaviour can exacerbate the situation. Therefore, it is best to avoid the following:

  • Taking a patronising or humiliating manner or tone
  • Not showing appropriate respect, etiquette or politeness
  • Rejecting the person in some way
  • Using confusing or complex language that the person does not understand
  • Not accepting or acknowledging a person’s concerns or anxieties

Very often, an aggressive person is not angry with you personally. It may be something that they perceive that your organisation has done or they may be in a state of emotional distress.

You may be on the receiving end of their aggression but it is important to try and remain detached and avoid becoming defensive or aggressive in response. Getting into an argument is likely to make things worse. Most importantly, try to remain calm.

Be sure to listen to the other person, even if you think they are being unreasonable. Without interrupting, ask clarifying questions, where possible, to improve your understanding of the person’s position. It may be possible to find areas where you have common ground.

Try to put yourself in the other person’s position and understand why they are feeling angry. If you recognise their issue and acknowledge it, you will be better placed to defuse the situation.

In some circumstances, it can be helpful to sympathise with the person and say that you are sorry that they are upset etc. However, do not say that you/your organisation is at blame. Neither should you blame the customer.

If possible, offer a solution to the customer’s problem. Ask the customer if there is anything you could do to resolve their issue. This should be something reasonable so do not make promises you cannot keep or do things beyond your authority. It may be sensible to involve a manager in this process, if available.

Always be aware of your organisation’s complaints procedure.

Sometimes, our attempts to defuse a situation fail. You may be left with no choice but to ask the customer to leave. To do so, you will need to be confident and assertive.

No matter how unreasonable you think a person’s comments are, it is important to remain calm and professional.

It is also worth considering customer vulnerability when dealing with difficult situations in the workplace – there may be other factors at play. For example, you should consider an individual’s mental health, their emotional wellbeing (i.e. people may be stressed, anxious or confused) or possible intoxication through alcohol or drugs.

Never put yourself or your colleagues into unnecessary danger. For your own safety, it is wise to maintain a physical distance. Never make physical contact with an aggressive customer.

There are any number of reasons why customer interactions might prove challenging, which is why it is important to empathise and show understanding. Inflaming a situation will only make things worse.

Complaints handling is one of the eight minimum necessary knowledge requirements for insurance intermediaries under the Insurance Distribution Directive (IDD). Beyond the regulatory requirements, it is also important to have the right ‘soft skills’ to deal with customers in unexpected and heated situations. Being able to work effectively with different people and defuse difficult situations is a useful skill to develop.

In challenging situations, remember to show respect for the other person, even if they are not showing respect towards you. This means you should be polite and courteous and not get involved in arguments wherever possible.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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