Recognition Is Half The Battle
You might be familiar with the cartoon examples of aggressive behavior shown in tv shows, books, and fantasy, but in real life it can often take you by surprise.
The natural response, which is to respond in an equally aggressive manner, is exactly the wrong approach if your goal is to diffuse the situation. If you react aggressively, it only proves to them that they were right to behave the way they are.
This is why it's so important to recognize situations that could possibly erupt into violence before it happens. We're going to take a look at the signs that someone might become aggressive, and what to do when you see it happening.
What is aggression?
It's behavior that manifests as hostility or violence when someone is preparing for a confrontation or attack.
Unless someone is particularly familiar and experienced with violence, it triggers massive physiological responses.
Think about being in junior high and having to speak in front of the whole school.
- You'd start sweating
- You might subconsciously lock your jaw out of anxiety
- Your hands start shaking
- Your chest would be tight
- You might clench and unclench your hands
- Your breathing would get shallow and get faster
- You might forget to blink as you fixate on a single point
- You'd fidget back stage
- Your face would get flushed
All of that happens when someone is psyching themselves up for violence, with the addition that some people's face goes completely pale right before an attack. It's the blood draining from extremities to minimize blood lost from cuts.
So, if you notice any of these changes in the other person's body they're becoming aggressive. And the more indicators there are, the more likely they are to manifest the aggression (instead of just experiencing it).
Manifestations of Aggression
Aggression changes behavior to become:
- Louder. They might start yelling & shouting.
- Pokey. As aggression is often a response to a perceived threat, they are likely to threaten right back with an accusatory finger poking your chest, or directed at your face.
- Filthy. Swearing increases as that language pathway in the brain is closely tied to threat identification. Chimps have unique calls similiar to "holy shit! Come look at this!" when they identify threats that are along the same lines as the tourettes pathway in human brains. That's why verbal tourette tics are almost always curses.
- More sensitive. An aggressive person becomes hyper aware of potential threats and responds in kind. It's like turning a microphone's gain all the way up, there's going to be a lot of feedback and it eventually breaks the system.
- Closer. They'll invade your space in a dominance display. It's a threatening behavior evolutionarily designed to test your resolve and willingness to fight. This includes stepping closer as well as leaning in if taller.
- Distracted. When they're getting ready to fight, a threat could come from anywhere, so attention has to be paid EVERYWHERE. This limits their ability to focus and maintain sustained attention on any one thing.
- Destructive. Thrashing the environment is an effective way to show willingness to fight. The objects don't hit back so it's not as dangerous as directly engaging a combatant, but it shows they're willing and able to lash out. It's only a matter of moments before it's directed at you.
Think of these as a combination of overt & covert responses. Throwing & kicking things is an overt display of aggression, whereas looking for insult can be more covert; it's not as obvious.
Tipping The Scales
What causes someone to finally lash out? What influences the likelihood that they will become violent?
We could spend hours (or centuries for that matter) debating the nature vs nurture argument, so let's just say it's a mix of both.
It all depends on how aggressive they are by nature, how well using aggression as a tool to get what they want has worked for them in the past, how effective they think it'll be now, how tired they are, whether they feel threatened in the first place, or maybe they just feel powerless otherwise and displaying potential for violence is their only option.
You might even be making the situation worse. Have you ever told someone who is upset to calm down?
Never in the history of ever has that ever worked.
Make sure you aren't belittling them, humiliating them, using the wrong name (intentionally or otherwise), using complex lingo that they're unfamiliar with, telling them their experience is not right (you're wrong for feeling upset), making assumptions about them, trying to downplay their situation, etc.
This isn't an exhaustive list, but it's a good place to start. And, we don't really care why they're behaving this way as long as you understand how you might be contributing to it. Mainly, we just want to know what to do about it.
Diffuse The Bomb
You've recognized the signs that a person is becoming more aggressive, and is likely to become outright violent. What do you do?
One of the simplest things is to give them the space & time to say their piece. Listen to understand, and hear them out. Try to approach the dynamic with a friendly approach, but make sure you don't go too far into SmarmyLand which might make them think you're patronizing them.
Don't meet their aggression head-on. This 'fight fire with fire' approach will only blow up in your face. Don't take their anger personally; even if it's directly aimed at you, and you deserve it. Getting defensive can trigger the offensive tact. Stay calm, keep your breathing deep & steady.
Try to diffuse, reduce, and address the potential situation as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the less time you have to reach a non-violent conclusion. Make sure your own body language remains open and non-confrontational. (This doesn't mean make yourself vulnerable. There are basic open stances that don't appear as fight-natured, so they're deceptively safe.)
Let the other person know they matter. Maintain eye contact, but try not to stare (Gorillas take too much direct eye contact as a challenge. So will agitated humans.). Move slowly, but deliberately. No sudden quick movements.
Try not to flex (physically, emotionally, or authoritatively): "You absolutely have to cut this out."
Instead of encouraging them to vent their emotions verbally (which may stoke their emotions), see if they could write a letter (if they're upset a person or situation where that might make sense). The writing process will engage their analytical faculties and minimize their temper.
Dealing with a potentially violent encounter with an aggressive person can be an incredibly stressful event. Don't sell yourself short. It can take a massive toll on you. Accept that you could still be affected by the experience, and give yourself the space to process it out.
But the best way to deal with it is to deal with it before it happens. Learn to identify the obvious, and non-obvious signs that aggression is likely, and minimize the risk for yourself and others.
Stay safe out there.