Controlling Aggression and Aggressive People
Aggression and violence are an unavoidable part of security work. Recent studies have uncovered some damning statistics to prove this.
In 2015, an SIA violence reduction report questioned over 800 people employed across various areas of the security industry, on the subject of violence and aggression. 44% of these interviewees were door supervisors.
The study showed that 96% of those questioned had experienced some form of abuse whilst discharging their duties. 70% of security workers admitted to being the target of physical assault. Of these, 46% required first aid and 34% reported actually being hospitalised as a result of the assault. These numbers are indeed shocking.
Security workers understand that handling aggressive people and potentially violent situations is an aspect of their profession. Indeed, they are trained for it. It would be wrong, however, to assume that violence on such a scale is in any way acceptable.
A 2021 study conducted by the workingthedoors found that thousands of British security workers are living with Post-Traumatic stress Disorder (better known as PTSD) as a result of being assaulted on the job. To call this a serious problem is, quite frankly, an understatement.
In some cases, door supervisors have even been murdered whilst in performance of their duties.
We have called for the law to provide greater protections to security staff across the industry and, while we continue to nurture our faith that these calls will eventually be heeded, we shall also offer this guide to recognising the signs of aggression, as well as mitigating violence in the most effective ways possible.
To this end, we will discuss the strategies, techniques and science of conflict resolution, thereby offering you an extra layer of protection against the aggression and violence that can all-too-often occur while working in security.
The Aggression Cycle
Experts in the field of human behaviour use what is known as ‘The Aggression Cycle’ in order to effectively chart a human being’s progress from a normal state-of-being to an aggressive and/or violent one.
Typically, the cycle is depicted as having three key points. These are known as escalation, explosion and post-explosion. However, in order to really get to grips with this concept, we’re going to need to examine the Aggression Cycle in greater detail.
There are five phases identified in the aggression cycle. These are:
Trigger – This is the event (real or imagined) that inaugurates the cycle. Many things can trigger a person, including deliberate provocation, sustained exposure to negative behaviour, anxiety or almost anything else. We’re all different – and so are our triggers.
GOAL: This is the easiest part of the cycle to stop. The task here is to respond to the trigger as swiftly and efficiently as possible. Where possible, remove the trigger from the person being triggered (or vice versa). You may address the specific needs of the person being triggered, as well as their emotional state (are they embarrassed, humiliated, frustrated, experiencing provocation?). Help the person deal with these feelings in a firm-but-friendly manner and many times you will have prevented a violent incident from occurring before it even began.
Escalation – Escalation is like a roller coaster going up a steep set of tracks. There is a point after which an outburst becomes inevitable. We will discuss the specific visual cues of a person experiencing anger later on in this article, but basic visual clues that a person is escalating may include gritted teeth, a ‘flushed’ or reddish appearance, muttering to themselves or simply declining to respond to anything around them. At this point, the person is likely to be fixated, either on their feelings of anger, or else on whatever has triggered that anger. Up until the halfway point, an angry outburst can still be avoided. After this point, it most likely cannot.
GOAL: This is a very dangerous point in time, as an outburst could occur rapidly (there is no set amount of time a person can take to escalate). The goal at this point is to assess the person’s anger and see if they can still be reasoned with. Speaking to the person in a calm, non-judgemental manner and possibly suggesting that they take a few deep breaths can help to calm them. In such cases, it really helps to remove the person from their immediate surroundings and/or triggers and simply talk with them. This does not necessarily need to be a warning or anything punitive. It could simply be an informal discussion, whereby a cooler head may be allowed to prevail.
Crisis – This is the point wherein the person has lost control and now very likely represents a danger to themself and others. This can start with verbal taunting, insults or provocation and may involve the person trying to ‘get under your skin’ by any means necessary (unfortunately, this may include racist, sexist or homophobic insults). In more extreme cases, physical aggression may be directed towards other people or property. At this point, emotion supersedes cognition, leaving the person unlikely to listen to reason.
GOAL: A person experiencing a crisis point should never be left alone. However, they should also not be allowed to remain among other patrons. Avoid further escalation and do not become aggressive with them. Do not debate the issue with them, either. It will be useless to do so, even if you agree with their position. The person may need to be escorted from the premises or even restrained, but this should always be handled in a professional and detached manner. Where possible, try to relate to them in a calm fashion and do everything you can to calm them down. Using short, simple statements and a calm tone of voice is like dousing a fire with cold water. Shouting and issuing ultimatums is akin to trying to use gasoline for the same purpose.
Recovery – As the person de-escalates and their rationality once again resumes, they may become remorseful or depressed. They may apologise, cry or simply slump to the ground. At this point, they may still be a threat, but must be handled with sensitivity and care.
GOAL: Re-triggering and re-escalations are the big risks at this point, so be sure to keep the person as calm as possible and allow them to regain control over their thoughts and actions. They will likely display feelings of embarrassment as they calm down. The job here is to facilitate, as much as is possible, their de-escalation.
Post-Crisis – You are not a therapist – and nobody is asking you to be one. However, a person who has finally calmed down will need to confront their actions and prepare for whatever consequences may be due. This could include panicking because they are about to be arrested or simply offering an apology to those they may have wronged through their actions.
GOAL: Treat the person with respect and dignity and allow their normal state of being to resume. Listen to them and be sure that they understand the ramifications of their actions. You might also suggest counselling and/or therapy to them.
The first thing to remember is that there is ALWAYS a trigger. This does not have to be a trigger that you can see or understand, but it is always present. It could be a perceived slight or, in certain cases, something the person has simply imagined, but nobody goes from their normal ‘default state’ (even if that state is somewhat agitated) to being aggressive or violent without at least some sort of trigger event taking place.
Also, escalation can take different amounts of time due to different factors. For example, a person who is relatively even-tempered may take longer to escalate than a person who is naturally short tempered.
Remember, you have no idea what other people are going through. People could be living with all sorts of difficulties. Hence, a recently bereaved person, or a person going through a painful separation is likely to escalate a lot faster than a person who is getting by well enough without any serious problems.
The earlier you can catch an escalation, the better your chances are of mitigating violence. Once an escalation has reached the halfway point, there is functionally no point trying to prevent an outburst from occurring.
Once a person reaches this ‘crisis point’, emotion, rather than reason, comes to dominate their actions. Logic will be discarded in favour of anger. At this time, as a security professional, it will be your job to intervene and to keep others safe.
The good news is that this type of anger is a temporary emotion and that it does burn itself out fairly quickly. It’s touch-and-go, as re-triggering and re-escalation can easily occur, but once a person appears to be calming down, you should then endeavour to carefully remove the trigger and do everything you can to facilitate their de-escalation.
The final part of the cycle is sometimes known as the post-crisis depression. This occurs after the violent or aggressive outburst has taken place. Typically, the person will feel embarrassed, vulnerable or even guilty about their actions.
It can take time for this period to pass, but it is also a good time to reason with the person, as logic will once again govern their actions and responses.
Body Language of an Attack
All communication adheres to what is called the ‘7-38-55’ rule. Spoken word is only 7% of all communication, while a person’s tone of voice accounts for 38%. Body language, for its part, is responsible for 55% of the information we communicate to others. This means that over half of our communication with other people occurs via a method that we are not, in most cases, consciously aware of.
The good news is that body language is fairly well understood by experts and, the better your understanding of body language, the greater your ability to predict a person’s actions will be.
As stated above, an enraged person’s face may become reddish or ‘flushed’, which is an outward signal of anger that is often employed by cartoonists as a shorthand for rage. However, in the moments before an attack occurs, it is also possible for the colour to drain from a would-be assailant’s face. Interestingly, rather than being a sign of aggression, this demonstrates the person’s loss of self-control.
Many of the other non-verbal cues that indicate aggression can be found on a person’s face. Dilated pupils, for example, may indicate aggressive intent, while rapid contraction of pupils demonstrates that an attack is imminent. It’s worth noting also that heavily dilated pupils is often a sign of drug use.
Maintaining strong eye contact can be useful in some cases, as it can demonstrate lack of fear, as well as your readiness to defend yourself and others from attack. We’ve all seen a ‘stare down’ take place at the beginning of a boxing or wrestling match – and this, as well as a way to build suspense for a paying crowd, is why they occur.
Be firm, but also remain polite and professional, You can handle aggressive people. You have been trained to do so. A solid, unflinching gaze can demonstrate this without you needing to utter a word. If you have a body worn camera or you are carrying a smart tag cannister, you can remind them of this and it may prove to be an excellent deterrent.
On the other hand, whilst eye contact can demonstrate a willingness (and ability) to defend yourself, it can also be construed by the other person as a direct challenge (remember the boxing stare down). In instances where the person is escalating, but may still be reasoned with, such unbroken eye contact may not be seen as a sign of active listening or as a gesture of respect, but instead as a threat. In these cases, eye contact should be maintained, but consciously broken from time-to-time.
Of course, a person will usually frown or scowl if they are displeased or upset by something. This is an obvious and easily detectable sign. If the person’s eyebrows suddenly drop, they may be about to attack, as this is an involuntary action taken to protect the eyes.
The eyes of the person may also dart towards an area they intend to strike. For example, if a person’s gaze suddenly drops away from yours and appears to be focussed on a part of your body (e.g., Your chest, groin or knees), they may be about to attack one of those areas.
The most vulnerable parts of the human body are the throat, eyes, nose, ears and groin. If the person is not confident of successfully beating you in a contest of strength (for example if you are large or muscular), they will probably seek out one of these areas to attack, in order to gain a brief advantage at the start of the fight.
Elsewhere on the face, a person may become tight-lipped when angry. This is where the lips stretch thinly across the mouth. In some cases, they will purse their lips, usually because they are avoiding saying something that may be offensive or otherwise inflammatory. Alternatively, an angered person may bear their gritted teeth if they are about to attack.
A person who is about to become aggressive will usually hold their head back slightly. However, an instant or two before the attack takes place, they will lower their head in an instinctive attempt to protect their throat from harm.
A person will also begin to breathe more heavily when they are about to attack. This, again, is likely to be involuntary (and it could also be a sign of trepidation on their part). Increased oxygen aids the muscles, which, if the person is about to attack, will be useful to them overall.
An angry person’s limbs, also, will change position in the moments before they launch an attack. People tense their shoulders and arms when they are about to fight. In general, an aggressive person’s elbows will be bent, and their fists raised a little in preparation to strike a blow. A person will also bend their knees a little before attacking.
If you turn your back on a person displaying these aggressive symptoms, it can be seen alternately as an act of disrespect and/or vulnerability – and you may be attacked at that point, even if there is or isn’t CCTV.
Other non-verbal signifiers of aggression or impending aggression may include the invasion of your personal space, or the person making some type of physical contact, such as poking a finger in your chest. Additionally, people, like cats, instinctively try to make themselves look bigger when we wish to appear threatening. Accordingly, an angry person may stand with their legs apart and their hands on their hips.
These and other signs can be the early warning system you need in order to avoid attack and subsequent injury. In some cases, you may even be able to see an attack on the horizon before the would-be attacker is even aware of it. By looking out for these early warning signs, you can be ready to defend yourself (using only reasonable force) if needs be.
Responding to Aggression
The overall goals when confronted with aggression are to keep yourself and others safe, as well as to encourage the aggressive person to calm down. However, the phrase ‘calm down‘ can actually trigger some people, as it implies that you neither care about, nor understand, the issue that is causing the person to become so upset. It comes across either as a command or a platitude and neither is of much use to a person who is escalating.
Attempts at lightening the mood with humour are also not recommended in these instances. You are likely to be seen as making light of the situation or else mocking the person who is escalating. This will only hasten their arrival at the crisis point, even though your intentions were quite the opposite.
Speak to the person calmly and, unless physically defending yourself, try to avoid aggressive body language and postures (this will take a conscious effort on your part, as you may instinctively adopt a more aggressive posture when confronted by an aggressive person).
Avoid making any sudden moves, especially those that could be mistaken for a violent action by the other person.
Should the need to physically defend yourself arise, you must first get your hands up above waist height and then create space between yourself and the aggressive person. You can do this either by stepping back or extending an arm. You may instruct both the assailant and the other patrons to ‘get back’ in a clear, commanding voice. This can also alert your colleagues to the presence of a difficult situation.
Remain detached and do not allow the other person to make you as angry as they are (we have covered the subject of anger management elsewhere on this site).
Above all, use your training and remember never to exceed the boundaries of ‘reasonable force‘ as they are defined by British law. To do so amounts to assault in the eyes of the law. This is a very serious charge and can see you stripped of your license as well as prosecuted.
Remember that the physiological remnants of an angry outburst can last anywhere between half an hour and 40 minutes, which means that people are always capable of re-escalating after that time.
R E A C T
Many door supervisors use a set procedure in order to handle patrons that don’t want to follow the rules. This procedure is best illustrated by the pneumonic ‘REACT‘. It goes like this:
R – REQUEST
E – EXPLAIN
A – APPEAL
C – CONFIRM
T – TAKE ACTION
Let’s break that down and examine it more closely.
R – REQUEST
The first step, ‘Request‘ is fairly straightforward. The door supervisor asks the patron to do something. This could be something major, like leaving the premises, or it could be a minor note that something they are doing is against the rules of the venue and must be stopped immediately.
The majority of people will comply with a request if it is made in a clear and respectful fashion and issued by a person who is obviously employed by the venue in an official capacity. In some cases, a patron may decide to argue with the door supervisor (foolish though this may be). They may protest their innocence, or else try to explain their actions. In rarer cases, the patron may ignore the door supervisor as a show of rebellion.
E – EXPLAIN
This brings us to the next step. ‘Explain’, means exactly that. In cases where the patron argues his or her point, the door supervisor should explain to them why the request has been made. In cases where the venue’s rules have been broken, you should explain which rules have been broken. For example, if a person lights up a cigarette on the dance floor, you can point to the nearest ‘No Smoking’ sign. That’s enough for anyone to understand.
Some patrons may not speak English or may have a hard time hearing you if the venue is noisy. In such cases, it is of vital importance that they understand the nature of their infraction. You might try explaining to a friend of theirs who speaks their language as well as English, pointing to a sign, or otherwise conveying the request.
A – APPEAL
Now that the request has been understood (and repeated, if necessary), we can move on to the next step. ‘Appeal’ represents an attempt by the door supervisor to get the patron to see sense. You may explain the consequences of their action to them (for example, “if you don’t stop doing that, I’ll have to ask you to leave”). This is NOT a debate as to the merits and drawbacks of the patron’s actions (and you must not let it become one). Equally, it is not a negotiation. It is, quite simply, the door supervisor ensuring that the patron understands what the consequences of their actions are going to be. If they refuse to leave after being formally asked to do so, this is the point where you explain that they will be forcibly ejected if they don’t comply peaceably with the request.
Now that the patron has been asked not to do something, shown why taking that action is unacceptable and warned against the consequences of continuing to take said action, it is time to move on to the next step.
C – CONFIRM
This step is called ‘Confirm’ and it involves gaining a clear and unambiguous confirmation from the patron that this is the course of action they are going to pursue. If, for example, a patron has been asked to leave, has heard an explanation of why they have been asked to leave and has been told that they will be ejected by force if they don’t leave, you may make one final appeal to their basic decency or common sense.
You might ask, for example, if they want to be dragged outside in front of all these people or if they would prefer to leave on their own terms, with their dignity intact. You might try a more informal, friendly approach, something like “come on, mate. Don’t make me drag you out of here. Just do us both a favour and go quietly”.
In all cases, you must make it clear that they will comply with the request or action will be taken against them – and that these are their only two choices. There is no debate, no negotiation and no getting around it. They can comply or they can leave. That’s it.
T – TAKE ACTION
The final step is called ‘Take Action’ – and that’s exactly what it entails. If the steps have been followed properly, the patron understands that they are acting in violation of either the law or the venue’s rules. They know what will happen if they continue to refuse to comply with verbal commands and they have made it clear that this is the course of action they wish to pursue. After this, you are left with no choice but to make good on your warnings. This will likely include ejecting patrons by force or in some cases even calling the police.
If these steps are followed carefully and proper procedure is adhered to, both you, your company and the venue are at significantly less risk of being subject to legal challenges. After all, it would be very difficult for a patron to claim that they were unfairly treated or that they were taken by surprise by anything that happened. It can be clearly demonstrated that they fully understood the consequences of their actions and took those actions anyway.
So long as the patron is actually guilty of the infraction, only reasonable, proportional force was used against them, the R E A C T procedure was followed and the patron was not treated unfairly in any way, you will have acted in accordance with both the law and the job description of a door supervisor. R E A C T can therefore be a very useful procedure indeed.
Dos & Don’ts
A lot of information has been presented to you in this feature. To sum it all up, we’ve put together a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ that should help to resolve unnecessary conflict and provide avenues through which the angry person may begin the process of de-escalation.
- DON’T…Be insulting or hostile in any way (even in cases where the person acts this way toward you).
- DON’T…Make light of the person or their problem (there are instances where humour hurts more than it helps).
- DON’T…Tell the person that you don’t care.
- DON’T…Take anything the person says personally.
- DON’T…Be aggressive. It will greatly speed up the person’s escalation process.
- DON’T…Issue threats. Explaining the consequences of their actions to a person is not the same as issuing a threat.
- DON’T…Employ aggressive or threatening body language. If you’re not sure what constitutes ‘aggressive’ body language, there are some examples listed above.
- DON’T…Patronise, humiliate or condescend to the person.
- DON’T…Tell the person to “calm down” (or to “shut up”, for that matter).
- DON’T…Get into a stare down with a person that has escalated past a certain point.
- DON’T…Raise your voice (unless you absolutely have to).
- DON’T…Infringe on somebody else’s personal space.
- DON’T…Negotiate. By all means listen and be understanding, but the rules are the rules – and they should apply equally to everyone.
- DON’T…Get personally involved in other people’s problems. You have a job to do.
- DON’T…Touch the person (unless you need to restrain them).
- DON’T…Display signs of low confidence or fear (e.g., averting your gaze or fidgeting).
- DON’T…Let the person bring others (such as their friends of other patrons) into the discourse.
- DON’T…Turn your back on the person.
- DO…Employ non-aggressive body language. If you want more information regarding non-verbal communication and body language, we have discussed the subject extensively elsewhere on this site.
- DO…Follow the R E A C T steps closely in all cases.
- DO…Familiarize yourself with the aggression cycle.
- DO…Practice anger management techniques yourself. This is also a topic we have covered on this site.
- DO…Remain cool, calm and collected at all times.
- DO…Speak with a calm, steady voice.
- DO…Allow the person the chance to voice their feelings.
- DO…Intervene in situations that could potentially worsen. The earlier you get involved, the greater the likelihood of peaceful resolution.
- DO…Allow the person to ‘save face’. Let them retain some dignity, as this can go a long way toward de-escalation.
- DO…Try to be empathetic and understanding at all times.
- DO…Be assertive (but not aggressive).
- DO…Know all the rules and policies of the venue you’re working for.
- DO…Practice active listening and good communication. We have also covered this elsewhere on the site.
- DO…Ensure that the person understands the rules they are in violation of.
- DO…Use only reasonable force – and only ever as a last resort.
A Note on Anger
Anger can take many forms and is often more accessible to people than hurt, sadness or other emotions.
Often, it comes from a bruised ego; a need to ‘save face’ in front of other people. Think of a time where you have successfully proven another person wrong in an argument and they responded by becoming insulting or aggressive. The ego is a form of psychological defence against, among other things, looking silly in public or simply being wrong.
Anger can be a way of getting attention, or of gaining validation or even revenge for real or perceived slights. It can be a response to trauma (for example, people suffering from PTSD can often react angrily to stimuli that reminds them of a traumatic or difficult incident in their lives). Anger can also be mysterious, with many people being angry from time-to-time, but not fully understanding why.
In some cases, anger can be misplaced (a homophobic person may be angry towards homosexuals because he or she is angry about their own homosexual urges, for example), or it may be generalised (a person may be angry towards a specific group of people based on the actions of one or two members of that group).
Paradoxically, anger can also be righteous, even justified. It can power social change and inspire great works of art. It can motivate people to do great things or help others and it can propel us to better ourselves and our society.
However it manifests in your life, we all feel anger at some point in our lives. It is almost impossible not to. Anger is an indelible part of the human experience. As a door supervisor, the better you understand anger, the greater your ability to avoid aggression and prevent violence will ultimately be.