Dealing with Aggression

Messages from Chinuch Research Center

Life presents us with all kinds of challenging situations. Aggressive behaviors, something we encounter in daily life in so many different settings, raise all kinds of questions. Some of us occasionally have to deal with aggressive people, whether as part of our work, homes, or daily lives. What is the wisest mode of reaction? What response makes sense? How do you bring down the “temperature” in the room?
It is important to respond appropriately when dealing with aggression. This section provides some suggestions for ways to manage aggression in others, particularly through the use of both verbal and nonverbal communication. Give this some thought and see how, with Hashem’s help and some practical recommendations, you can make important changes.

Dealing with Aggression

The First Line of Defense Is Self-Control

Aggression is often associated with deep emotional responses. It is a reaction to oncoming threats or anger that act as triggers for the person’s aggressive response.
If you are going to deal effectively with aggression in others, it is important that you understand and can manage your own emotional responses.
For example, you need to know what sort of behaviour or person makes you feel angry and potentially aggressive. Which kinds of behaviour get deeply onto your nerves? You need to know how you react, and then learn to control your feelings and ensure that your response is appropriate to the circumstances.
Making an appropriate response can help the other person manage their emotions. For example, an assertive response (instead of a passive or aggressive one) can actually move the other person to become more assertive, rather than become aggressive.
One of the most important things to understand is that the person’s comment or behavior probably isn’t personal. That means, he is not targeting you specifically. You are simply in the line of fire. Therefore, you don’t need to take it personally and become defensive. This is not a criticism of you.

The Importance of Listening and Accepting
We all want to be listened to, especially when we are talking about something that is important to us. Of course, this “listening” tactic includes children too. Parents of young children will often be dealing with frustration and aggression because of the “no one is listening to me” feeling. But that may be easier to manage than, chas veshalom, aggression in another adult! It is, after all, not really acceptable to give an adult ‘time out’ even if you think it would probably help both of you.
So, what should you do?
First, it is important to allow the other person time to express themselves fully. Listen to what they have to say and encourage them to tell you the problem. An open, friendly approach helps define your relationship as a supportive one, rather than one of confrontation. Show empathy and understanding about their situation. That’s step one – priority! Your children or the other person involved will be so grateful!

It can be especially helpful to recognize the other person’s emotional responses. This shows that you have understood not just the situation, but also their feelings. You can also say how sorry you are that they feel like this.
For example:
“I can see that this has made you really angry, and I’m not surprised. It sounds really awful.”
“I can tell that you’re really upset about this. I’m really sorry you’ve been made to feel like this.”
Care should be taken not to reinforce the other person’s aggressive behaviour, particularly through behaving angrily or defensively yourself.

Factors That Reduce Aggressive Behaviour
There are a number of factors that make a person less likely to behave aggressively. These may be related to the individual, the environment, or the other people involved.
For example, individuals who are fairly passive by nature will be less likely to become aggressive. People are also less likely to be aggressive if they have experienced their aggressive behaviour not being rewarded or believe that aggression is unlikely to help a situation.
Individuals are also less likely to become aggressive if they:
feel safe and unthreatened
expect to be treated with respect, perhaps because of a previous experience in that environment or with that person
understand the behaviour that is expected, or
are able to communicate effectively.
A calm environment, where most people feel comfortable and where people are treated with respect, is less likely to generate aggression. It is also much harder to be aggressive if everyone around you is behaving calmly and respectfully.
If you work in an organization that regularly has to deal with aggressive people, you may find it helpful to consider whether you could make any physical changes to the environment.
For example, a less formal environment may be more relaxed, less intimidating. Offering a cup of tea or a glass of water as a routine part of a meeting may also help build a relationship from the start. Something as simple as positioning a computer screen so that the other person can see it can help make the relationship more even. It’s all basically a middah of caring about others and being aware of their behaviours and needs.

Defusing Aggression in Others
There are a number of both verbal and non-verbal techniques that are effective for dealing with aggression. These techniques will be particularly helpful in a person’s professional life.
Non-verbal behaviors

that can help defuse aggression include:
being aware of your own body language and showing a non-threatening stance
keeping good eye contact but ensuring this does not appear confrontational
moving slowly and steadily; trying to keep your physical movements calm
respecting the other person’s personal space.

Verbal behaviors

that will encourage assertive responses include:
listening to what the other person has to say; accepting, recognizing, and emphasizing positive aspects of what is being said
showing respect through polite formalities but working towards familiarity
showing understanding and empathy by reflecting, clarifying, and summarizing the other person’s thoughts and feelings
avoiding any expression of power, for example, “you must calm down”
encouraging the other person to take responsibility for their own behaviour and to direct it into more positive outlets, e.g., making a written complaint rather than verbally criticizing someone or an organization.

Coping with Aggression After the Event
People vary widely in their reactions to other people’s aggression. How a person reacts can depend on many factors, such as previous experiences and exposure to aggression, upbringing, age, health, and reactions to stress in general.
Ways of coping with aggression after it has happened:
Refer to any guidelines of your organization.
Report the event to a supervisor.
Tell others about your experience. Expressing feelings and reactions can help you come to terms with what has happened and to understand that many such reactions are a normal response to hostile behaviour.
Attempt to analyze what has happened, why the other person behaved as they did, and why you reacted in that way. Discuss this with a supervisor or other members of your organization.
Put into practice stress management techniques.
Be aware of possible symptoms that may follow such an experience, e.g., feelings of anxiety, disturbed sleep, constantly recalling the event, physical reactions, depression, or difficulties in concentration.
Do not underplay the stress of an event, either to yourself or to others. Do not allow others to treat it as minor. If it distresses you, then it is important to deal with it.

A Final Thought
In order to develop an understanding of aggressive behaviour, it is important for people to recognize their own feelings and how they react and deal with aggression. The first line of defense is very definitely not attack. In this case it is self-control.
Listening to people and treating them as human beings can go a very long way to helping you defuse aggression in others. Very few people actually want to be angry and aggressive. Let’s always recognize this and keep it in mind.