Dealing With Aggressive People

Presented by Senior Constable Michelle O’Rielley,
Adelaide Police Community Programs Section

SALIN Seminar, 3rd April 2008

Workplace Safety was a very informative seminar presented by experienced police officer Michelle O’Rielley, a member of the Adelaide Police community Programs Section. Michelle has been a police officer for 22 years, 10 years as a patrol officer and the past 12 in her current role. Although titled ‘Workplace safety’ the session focussed on personal safety in the workplace. Attended by library students and staff from a variety of library types, the presentation was full of useful tips and techniques for dealing with people displaying anger or aggression and keeping yourself and others safe.

The session began with a quick brainstorm about reasons why library users may become angry when using library services. Ideas ranged from fines, slow service, mistakes made by library staff, to frustration with technology or the behaviour of other library users. Michelle identified the main reasons people become angry as:

• Dissatisfaction or frustration with service
• Not feeling listened to
• ‘The last straw’ – something may have happened earlier to trigger their anger
• Mental or physical or emotional issues
• Manipulation or intimidation – with people feeling like they have no control over what’s going on
• Fear
• A misunderstanding relating to communication

What may seem a small or minor issue to us can be a major issue or even a catastrophe to someone else. We can’t always predict the response to an issue without knowing all the circumstances of our users. The main point Michelle stressed was not to take anything personally. While sometimes easier said than done, once we take something personally we take on a defensive/aggressive role ourselves.

A number of factors can affect a person’s level of anger including low self-esteem, substance abuse or reactions from others. A person may just be a normally aggressive or abrupt person, or it may be a learned behaviour used as a coping mechanism. Michelle talked us through some warning signs that can help us prepare or be ready for a worsening situation. Often a warning sign is a signal that the current situation isn’t working and we should try something else to assist the user.

Warning signs can be physical or verbal. Some examples include:

• Direct or indirect threats of violence
• Intimidating behaviour
• Paranoid behaviour – behaviour that seems irrational
• Agitate behaviour such as pacing and glaring
• Swearing or abusive language
• Body language – such as a clenched jaw or fist, big gestures, scowling
• Other physical effects such sweating or shaking
• Rapid speech
• Difference in tone of voice

Keep an eye out for these warning signs, and if you need to try something to diffuse the situation or protect yourself, Michelle recommended the following ‘anger busters’:

• Ensure you identify a clear and safe exit for yourself
• Consider your position and the persons in regards to exits
• Give them space – at least their arm’s length (not your arm length)
• Use physical barriers if needed, e.g. a desk
• Consider moving the person to another suitable location, e.g. near other staff members, not an isolated place
• Get another staff member involved for support or advice
• Respond, not react (remember don’t make it personal)
• Keep your voice low but speak clearly and slowly – often if you lower their voice they have to stop yelling to hear you
• Talk with you hands with palms up (but not if you are holding something)
• Actively listen and respond carefully – give appropriate physical signals
• Rephrase their comments back to them to signal you are listening
• Use silence as a calming tool – a 5 or 10 second pause gives you time to think
• Make notes of conversations – allows you to gather your thoughts and shows the person you are willing to do something about the issue – make sure you follow up though otherwise you could make the situation worse
• Try to determine the real issue
• Use positive language
• Avoid glaring or staring at the person
• Avoid walking backwards when confronted – sideways is preferred
• Don’t stand straight-on in front of the person, standing to the side on an angle

Keep in mind though that not every situation can be resolved. If all of the above strategies don’t have the desired effect, don’t continue trying to negotiate. It’s paramount that you consider your personal safety and that of your colleagues and the other library users.
If all else fails:

• Explain to the person that their behaviour is unacceptable and ask them to modify it
• Ask the person to leave the library
• Physically remove yourself from the threat
• Delay any decisions for another day, but be prepared to deal with the issue again
• Go to a safe and secure place and call the Police.
Remember the police are here to help us, so don’t hesitate in calling 131444 for assistance or activating your duress alarm if you have one.

Finally, Michelle recommended some suggestions for libraries looking to be proactive in workplace safety:

• Do a violence audit – make notes of exits, places and people that can be used if a situation arises
• Consider utilising incident/injury report forms, if you don’t already
• If you don’t have any policies or procedures in place, contact other libraries to see what they do
• Contact Government or non-government organisations for assistance

Overall the seminar was very useful. Michelle was a fantastic presenter and was able to give many examples of relevant situations from her time as a patrol officer. Although a lot of library staff may not have encountered a situation that requires all of the above advice, it can’t help to be prepared.

Write-up by Kelly Glossop
4th April, 2008


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