Recognising Aggression in Others

Continued from: Dealing with Aggression

Usually, it is obvious when someone is aggressive, from his or her actions, words and/or expressions.

It is important that anyone who finds themselves in such situations does not respond aggressively to the aggressive behaviour as it may only serve to reinforce such behaviour.  It is essential to watch for signals that might indicate that a person’s aggression is escalating.

This page examines signs that may indicate that somebody is becoming aggressive and factors and behaviours that may encourage aggressive behaviour. The page continues to cover ways that aggression can be neutralised through careful communication skills. Finally the page looks at how to cope with the aftermath of aggressive behaviours.


How to Recognise Aggression

Signals to be monitored include physical and behavioural changes which can include:

Physical Changes Behavioural Changes
Sweating / perspiring Loud speech or shouting
Clenched teeth and jaws Pointing or jabbing with the finger
Shaking Swearing/verbal abuse
Muscle tension Over-sensitivity to what is said
Clenched fists Standing too close
Rapid breathing/sharp drawing in of breath Aggressive posture
Staring eyes Tone of voice
Restlessness, fidgeting Problems with concentration
Flushed face or extreme paleness of face Stamping feet
Change in Health of a Family Member Banging/kicking things
Rise in pitch of voice Walking away

Some of these responses are classed as open or direct responses and are more likely to be the reactions of aggressive individuals, for example clenched fists, swearing, verbal abuse, or the adoption of an aggressive posture. Over-sensitivity to what is said or crying are classed as passive or indirect responses, and are more likely to be associated with passive individuals.

You should be aware that the more extreme signals of aggression presented together might indicate that an individual is becoming increasingly agitated, and the potential for this to develop into a risk situation should be seriously considered.  Anyone working in situations where aggression leading to violence is a threat should make sure they have adequate protection.


Factors Influencing Aggressive Behaviour

While the precise reasons for an individual behaving aggressively will vary enormously from person to person and situation to situation, there are many factors that make aggression in an individual more likely. 

These include:

  • He/she is more aggressive by nature.
  • Previous aggressive behaviour in similar circumstances has resulted in reward or success.
  • He/she believes that his/her goals will be best achieved through an aggressive response.
  • Frustration (e.g., from an inability to communicate effectively).
  • He/she feels threatened.
  • He/she feels powerless.
  • He/she is in pain, either physically or mentally.
  • He/she expects to be confronted/treated with hostility.
  • He/she has been in conflict with the individual in the past.
  • He/she is in a state of physiological arousal, e.g. excited, anxious, heart beating faster.  Such arousal could be brought about by exercise, stress, a previous argument and many other things.  Someone in this state is less likely to keep calm.
  • Others are behaving aggressively around him/her.
  • Pressure from friends or peers to behave aggressively.
  • He/she feels justified in being angry.

Behaviours that Encourage Aggressive Reactions

There are many things that can make people aggressive.  Unfortunately, many individuals experience frustration and anger when dealing with authority, bureaucracy or large organisations. 

Common behaviours that lead to aggression in such situations include:

  • Adopting a patronising attitude.
  • Humiliating or talking down to someone.
  • Using wrong names or inappropriate forms of address.
  • Using jargon.
  • Telling individuals they are wrong to feel/behave as they do.
  • Telling people how they feel.
  • Making assumptions.
  • Trivialising a person’s problems, worries or concerns.
  • Over-familiarity.

If your professional life involves dealing with potentially aggressive individuals, it is important to understand that these people may be aggressive because they feel ill at ease.  This is not only because of feelings of apprehension at approaching an organisation, but also perhaps because of the reasons they are making contact. 

This is understandable considering that:

  • They are in an unfamiliar place.
  • They are often upset or experiencing distress.
  • They may already have feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction.
  • They may expect to have a battle with the organisation in order to have their needs met or worries considered.

For these reasons, it is important on the first contact with a potentially aggressive person to allow them time to express themselves fully. Listen to what they have to say and to encourage them to feel at ease in the unfamiliar situation.  An open, friendly approach at the outset helps to define the relationship as a supportive one, rather than one of confrontation.

Care should be taken not to reinforce aggressive behaviour.  Having an awareness of different types of aggression and implementing some of the coping techniques outlined here will help to deal with aggression.

See our page: What is Counselling?


Factors That Reduce Aggressive Behaviour

There are many factors that make aggressive behaviour less likely. These include:


  • He/she tends to be passive.
  • Previous aggressive behaviour in similar circumstances has not been rewarded.
  • He/she believes that an aggressive approach is unlikely to achieve goals.
  • He/she is able to communicate effectively.
  • He/she feels safe/unthreatened.
  • The environment is comfortable/calm.
  • He/she expects to be treated with respect.
  • His/her previous contact with the person has been amicable.
  • He/she is calm.
  • Others around him/her are calm.
  • He/she is aware of the behaviour expected in this situation, i.e. the social norms.
  • He/she cannot justify anger or aggression.

Coping with Aggression in Others

There are a number of key techniques for dealing with aggression which should be put into practice, especially if it is feared that such aggression may escalate.  These techniques will be helpful to everyone who has to manage aggression in the course their professional life.

  • Try not to take hostility personally; you may just be the person in the firing line.
  • Be aware of your own reactions to aggression and try to remain calm yourself.  If you respond aggressively, you will reinforce the other’s behaviour.
  • Try to recognise and defuse the aggression as early as possible by showing empathy.  It is generally much easier to avoid the build-up of aggression than to calm things down once anger has flared.

Non-Verbal Behaviour to help defuse aggression

  • Be aware of your own body language and present a non-threatening, open stance.
  • Keep good eye contact but ensure this does not appear confrontational.
  • Move slowly and steadily.  Try to keep physical movements calm.
  • Respect personal space.

Verbal behaviours to Encourage Assertive Responses

  • Listen to what the other person has to say and accept, recognise and emphasise positive aspects of what is being said.
  • Show respect through polite formalities, although aim to work towards familiarity.
  • Demonstrate understanding and empathy with the person through reflecting, clarifying and summarising his/her thoughts and feelings.
  • Avoid any expression of power, for example "You must calm down."
  • Encourage the aggressor to take responsibility for his/her own behaviour and to direct it into more creative or positive outlets, e.g., by making a written complaint rather than verbally criticising someone/an organisation.

See also our section: Assertiveness


Coping With Aggression After the Event

People vary widely in their reactions to the experience of other people’s aggression.  How a person reacts can depend on many factors such as previous experiences and exposure to aggression, upbringing, norms of behaviour, gender, culture, age, health, and expectations as well as physiological differences and reactions to stress in general .

Ways of coping with aggression after the event include the following:

  • Refer to any guidelines of your organisation.
  • Report the event to a supervisor.
  • Tell others about your experience.  Expressing feelings and reactions can help to come to terms with what has happened and to understand that many such reactions are a normal response to hostile behaviour.
  • Attempt to analyse what has happened, why the other person behaved as he/she did and what your reactions were.  Discuss this with a supervisor or other member of your organisation.
  • Put into practice stress management and relaxation techniques.
  • Be aware of possible symptoms that may follow such an experience, e.g. feelings of anxiety, disturbed sleep, constantly recalling the event, recurring dreams, 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.  Whilst they may not have been disturbed by such an event, if it distresses you then it is important to deal with it.

In order to develop an understanding of aggressive behaviour, it is important for people to recognise their own feelings of aggression and how they react and deal with it - both within themselves and in others. 

There are many factors that can lead to aggressive behaviour. In order to defuse aggression in others, a knowledge of relevant verbal and non-verbal strategies is essential.

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