How to Stay Safe When You are
Confronted by an Aggressive Person
Many people know that if they're confronted by an aggressive dog, the best thing to do is stand still (as running sparks the dog's chase instinct). Being confronted by an aggressive person, meanwhile, is another story and one that most people don't think about -- until it's too late.
Sensing aggression before it becomes obvious (such as when a normally organized person becomes disheveled), and reaching out to the person to help diffuse the tension, will help you stay safe.
One in three women in the United States will be attacked during her lifetime, according the Department of Justice, and knowing what to do can save your life. Often, it starts by being followed, stalked or confronted by someone who seems unstable, hostile or otherwise aggressive. It's not uncommon for aggression to come from someone close to you, as well.
Men, too, may encounter someone who seems overly aggressive -- on the job, at home or simply in public -- and how you react can mean the difference between a fight or a peaceful interaction.
What exactly is aggression? It's any behavior that is intended to cause harm, and it can include physical, mental or verbal behaviors. Most experts agree that aggression is either hostile (anger-based) or instrumental (intended to achieve a goal).
"Aggression is an umbrella term for behaviors that are intended to inflict harm. These behaviors evolved as adaptations to deal with competition, but when expressed out of context, they can have destructive consequences. Uncontrolled aggression has several components, such as impaired recognition of social cues and enhanced impulsivity," said researchers in the July 2007 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
Indeed, while aggression is an instinctual response to some extent -- which helped our ancient ancestors during threatening times -- if you encounter someone with uncontrolled aggression -- whether a stranger or someone close to you -- the following can help.
Safely Dealing With an Aggressive Person
If you see someone becoming angry or frustrated, leave the area immediately. One of the best ways to diffuse anger is to simply back off and give the person some space.
Avoid trying to reason with the person if they appear hostile and upset. Wait until they have cooled down before you expect any rationale thinking to occur.
Do not confront them aggressively in return. This will likely increase their aggression. A calm, passive response is best and will help to diffuse the anger.
When speaking with an aggressive person, do not be argumentative. If necessary, agree with them, say you understand why they're upset, and even apologize for the way they're feeling ("I'm so sorry you feel you've been treated unfairly."). This helps to calm the situation because it's nearly impossible to continue arguing with someone that's agreeing with you.
New research has found that men with larger facial width-to-height ratios tend to be more aggressive.
Use a low, soft tone of voice when speaking to someone aggressive.
Listen to the person. Many people use aggression as a coping mechanism, when what they really need to do is talk their feelings out. Just lending an ear may help them calm down.
Be aware of signs that someone is about to become aggressive. According to the Center for Aggression Management, "Aggressive behavior can be something as subtle as scattered and disjointed thinking by an individual who is normally methodical and pragmatic. This change in behavior should cause us to engage the person." Often, by giving the person attention (saying something like "You seem frazzled, is everything ok?") and allowing them to vent, you can diffuse the tension.
Aggressive behavior often starts with what the Center for Aggression Management calls "hardening." "When an individual moves away from a win/win situation and begins to harden his position on his issue versus your issues, that individual is beginning on a path of aggression that ultimately could result in violence to you and those in your care," they say. If you notice someone becoming hardened, step in to try and diffuse the conflict.
If aggressive behavior turns threatening (the person has a weapon, has made threats against your physical safety or seems imminently dangerous) call 911 for help.
If the situation escalates and you must defend yourself, the best thing to do is run away. If you can't get away and you are being attacked , use these 15 tips to defend yourself.
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Nature Reviews Neuroscience 8, 536-546 (July 2007)
Center for Aggression Management: The Aggression Continuum: A Paradigm Shift
ScienceNOW August 20, 2008