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Recognising Aggression in Others

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.

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

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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.

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.
  • 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.

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.

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.

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