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Verbal Management of Aggression

Posted April 25, 2018 by Ami Toben

The Verbal Management of Aggression is a concern that unites everyone.

In almost every security training I’ve conducted over the years, the subjects of verbal compliance and verbal management of aggressive behavior have come up. The interest in these topics is found among security and non-security professionals alike. It’s a concern that unites everyone.

Having spent years grinding it out in the field, dealing with this topic first-hand, I’ve noticed things that tend to work and things that don’t. I’ve taught the subject to hundreds of security and non-security professionals over the years, and have heard back from many who have also had prior and/or subsequent success with what I’m about to explain.

Before we get into this, let me just say that these are not my techniques. These are time-tested methods that have been around for quite a while and that can also be found elsewhere. Security professionals, and especially law enforcement officers, should already be very familiar with these techniques. What I’m giving you here is my own twist on it with some lessons I learned from the field.

Verbal compliance

Let’s start with the attempt to elicit compliance from someone who is reluctant, unwilling or argumentative, but very importantly, not aggressive.

The following five steps detail a potential chronological progression. In an ideal situation, step #1 will produce compliance, but if it doesn’t, it opens up the need to progress to step #2, and so on down the line. If compliance was not achieved by step #5, then verbal attempts might come to an end.

  1. The first step is to ask the person in a friendly and helpful manner to do what you want them to do. It almost pains me to write something so self-evident, and yet, experience has shown me otherwise. You’d be surprised how many security professionals sail right past this obvious starting point, and immediately get into their tactical karate stances in order to deal with a “potential threat”. Yes, the person might be non-compliant but there’s no good reason to simply assume they’ll refuse a polite request. I’ve seen many officers over the years create their own problems by skipping this step.
  2. If necessary, state why they should do what you ask of them. This allows the individual to get a grasp for your reasoning. Most importantly, it gives notion to the universal law of respect. This is a direct continuation, and a slight expansion of the idea in Step #1.
  3. If this still doesn’t generate compliance, create and present options. Most people like to be given choices and a second chance. For best results, try to sound, friendly and helpful. Put the positive option first, then the negative, and then remind them of the positive again. Remember that most individuals are self-interested, so put forward the interest for them.
  4. The next step is to point out the other person’s non-compliance. Let them know that they are not co-operating and that this doesn’t work. This is particularly useful with the type of people who are, how shall I put it, “career debaters”. These are the people who tend to ramble on and on, taking your valuable time and causing a scene. In many cases, stating the fact of their non-compliance in perhaps a slightly more direct and less accommodating manner can snap them out of it.
  5. The last step is to act. Very importantly, action doesn’t mean you immediately ‘go ballistic’ and unleash your most decisive tactical take-down moves. Depending on the situation and the options available, action might simply mean you disengage, communicate for backup or call the authorities.

Management of aggressive behavior

OK, let’s talk about some verbal options when dealing with aggressive individuals. These are people who are not just argumentative and non-compliant but that are visibly and/or vocally aggressive. They haven’t necessarily physically assaulted anyone but they display obvious signs of physical aggression, anger, readiness or distress.

  1. Try to verbally agree with the person who is angry. Don’t interrupt them, let them vent out their problems even if they’re wrong or don’t make any sense. Express agreement with their claims even if you don’t feel that way.
  2. Offer options. Redirect them and offer potential solutions: “Here’s what we can do…” Keep in mind that these don’t necessarily have to be real options that are available to you. You’re simply trying to diffuse a dangerously focused laser beam of anger by spreading it out over a wider area with multiple options.
  3. Identify the problem. In most cases you are not the actual problem. You’re simply the person that’s being confronted. Identifying the problem might redirect their anger away from you and might help defuse the situation or de-escalate it to where it no longer poses a danger. If their angry laser beam is aimed at you, try to take their cross-hairs somewhere else. Even a temporary loss of a target might bring their adrenaline levels down.
  4. Empathize. Let them know you feel for them, and realize they’re having a difficult time. Tell them that the problem also bothers you personally, and that you’re actually on their side, even though it might not look like it. This will put more of a human and personal face on the situation, which might prevent a violent outburst.
  5. Use a collaborative approach: “Let’s try to solve this problem together” “Maybe we need to look at this a bit differently”. Verbally putting yourself on their side can help redirect aggression away from you and hopefully defuse it by making it seem to the aggressor that they’re not alone in this.

Common Issues With compliance and management of aggressive individuals

  1. Verbal management of aggression is NOT the same as verbal compliance. With aggressive individuals, there’s only one goal—to de-escalate, lower the person’s level of Adrenaline and get their aggression levels down.
  2. Until you can lower the person’s Adrenaline and aggression levels, there’s no point in trying to get compliance out of them. This is one of the most common mistakes people make, one that can actually escalate the situation. Don’t overreach and try to get everything you want out of them at once. Focus first on lowering aggression. Only after aggression is under control should you start trying to get them to comply.
  3. In order to lower aggression, it’s legitimate to pander, lie, verbally agree and offer them the moon if necessary. There’s no ego here, no judgement about who’s right or wrong; there’s one thing only—lowering levels of adrenaline and aggression. Only once the situation is less dangerous, should you begin to talk about what actually is or isn’t possible or advisable. Aggression in most situations is not rational. If logic didn’t guide them into their aggressive state, it’s probably not going to guide them out of it. It’s OK for you to temporarily put logic aside as you claim to agree with the person and offer them unrealistic solutions.
  4. Lowering the person’s aggression can very well be a temporary fix, especially if they figure out that what you’ve offered them was bogus. That’s OK. Once again, don’t try to overreach and solve everyone’s problems for good. The temporary lowering of aggression could be all it takes to snap the person’s out of their illogical, self-destructive aggression. We’re not looking for world peace here. Most of what we need is to prevent a snap decision to revert to violence. The person might still be angry, but with lower levels of Adrenalin, you’re more likely to be able to reason with them. You can then have a legitimate argument and try to work on verbal compliance, but this should only come after the physical danger has passed.
  5. Even if aggression returns after the person realizes you lied to them, you would have at least bought yourself some valuable time during which backup, assistance or law enforcement could have arrived. You’re not just dodging your responsibilities or kicking the can down the road. You’re creating a tactical advantage by temporarily stalling or delaying the person’s aggression.

Ami Toben

Author, consultant, operator, security director.

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