If you’re confronted by someone aggressive at work, the first thing is to remain calm – our natural instinct is either to give in or to be aggressive back, and both of these are usually bad options.
Certainly being aggressive back is highly risky and you’ll probably regret whatever happens next. Some people say that bullies respect people who stand up to them, but there’s standing up to them calmly, which is usually good, and standing up to them aggressively, which is definitely a bad idea.
Giving in to aggressive people is safer, but the problem is that you are rewarding bad behaviour and they will quite possibly keep doing it, perhaps getting gradually worse each time. So it probably is best to calmly stand up to them. Here are a few thoughts on how to do this:
Start whatever you say with “I understand…… “ this could take the form of “I know you’re under pressure” or “I agree it’s incredibly annoying when it’s our most important customer and the factory promises a date and then delivers it a whole week late” or whatever it is that is upsetting them.
Next– point out the behaviour: “Bill, you’reshouting at meand calling me a –whatever– and I just don’t think that’s going to help get this resolved”.
Make sure you comment on their behaviour rather than saying “You’re such an aggressive person” because they can’t easily change themselves as a person but they CAN more easily change their behaviour.
Next– what do you want to happen? You could ASK themthis, if the answer isn’t obvious. For example “We’ve run out of parts, the customer is screaming for them, we have to wait 10 days for them to come from China and I’m phoning the supplier every day – what else do you want me to do?”.
Or you can TELL them what you want to happen: for example “So could we calmly sit and look at options, and then meet each morning for 5 minutes and have an update so we both know where we are on the job?”
Always decide what you want to get from an angry situation, and then calmly stick to getting that. Insults and threats etc don’t matter in the end, it’s all about getting whatever you want from the situation.
If you think there is more to their anger than just this situation, you can ask about this by saying “I notice that you’re extremely annoyed by what is really quite a small thing, and I’m wondering if you have a bigger issue with the way the department is run?” This is known as negative enquiry, it’s quite a brave and counter-intuitive thing to do really because you are inviting more criticism, but it calms them down and allows you to get to the root of the problem, which is the only way you can get it resolved in the long run.
Similarly if they have a HABIT of getting angryduring difficult conversations, or coming to you in an already angry state, then it’s going to be worth confronting them on their habit– have they noticed that they quite often get angry? If they deny it you can say “Shall I point it out when you next do it?”
Finally a technique I like with angry or aggressive people, as well as others, is to offer them a choice of evils, so you might say “I’m really sorry about the lateness on this project, and I agree it’s really irritating that we’ve been let down by our supplier, but I have got a couple of options for you – we could work the weekend and get it back on schedule although that would cost a little bit more,
or, the other option, would be to deliver it with some of the peripheral parts not finished and we could come and fit them in a week or two for you – what do you think?”
This technique is clever because it makes you look as if you’re really trying to help them, and also it clogs up their mind with the decision that needs to be made, so they kind of forget to still be angry. If you only offer ONE solution they can attack that, saying it’s not good enough “I can’t have it delivered half finished!!” but if you offer them a choice of solutions then it’s much harder for them to attack both of them.
So those are some thoughts on aggressive people at work – don’t cave in or get angry back, but calmly tell them what they are doing and what you’d like to do to resolve it, sometimes with a choice of evils.
And it’s good to ask them what they want from the situation, and whether there is anything else that they want to change in the bigger picture. Thinking about any aggressive people that you have at work, could you use one of these approaches to reduce the problem?
Onwards and upwards!