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Not sure if this question is better for martial arts or what. The goal is personal safety, but I find it interpersonal because it's a matter of maintaining personal safety using 'soft' strategies (decisions & discussion not body armor) while also maintaining group relations and norms and not burning any bridges or coming off as acting rashly.

In the news we hear about crazed acts of violence against innocent people. I'm not sure if this is actually any more common nowadays than in the past and I recognize it is an exceptional, unusual thing in any case. Still, it happens. In schools, in public places, in offices, maniacs lash out violently. I'm on board with "we can't live in fear" mentality, but I also think the world can be a dangerous place in general and one has to take some level of responsibility for their own safety in response to stimuli and circumstance.


Consider the following example:

In a class or school, a member of the group (student or employee) has demonstrated a history of (non-violent) aggressiveness. For example, when confronted about performance issues, they become enraged, turn red and yell. Those outbursts are dealt with by administrators but are not always grounds to permanently remove the aggressive member of the group. Eventually after so many outbursts and continued poor performance, the aggressive person is told their time with the group is up and they'll have to leave at a certain date. That person becomes enraged again, but cools off and remains until their expulsion date. (Why they're not escorted out immediately is an administrative decision out of group members' control.)

If I am one of the people this aggressive person has targeted their anger at in the past, I'd feel unsafe, concerned they could escalate to actual violence on account of their dismissal. Even before dismissal, this kind of person is a threatening presence for the group, especially for those they aim their anger at. How are group members to act in this situation?

For one to avoid the group - a class or work setting - may be acceptable for short periods as if one were sick, but that ultimately becomes a significant career move if one decides to just leave the group over this. To avoid the aggressive person like the plague is frowned upon as not everyone can take that course and it can escalate or upset the person, who's aggression and behavior may be improved by acceptance rather than becoming an outcast. To report the aggressive person to a higher authority doesn't seem to make sense as they haven't actually committed any crime or even threatened to, they are just generally short-tempered, and escalating the situation in that way may just escalate their bad temper or aggressive behavior in the future. None of us are perfect and being short-tempered is not a crime, though it can be threatening to the group. The situation becomes more complicated if the aggressive person is a known hunter or otherwise firearms enthusiast legally; a short-temper is not (yet) grounds to lose one's right to bear arms, and the aggressive person may have no criminal record or any history of physical violence toward other people. Heck, there are cases where this aggressive character is generally not seen as a bad person or an extremist in any way, quite friendly most of the time and appreciating life as most others do, but just has a temper and a bad habit of lashing out at others which is threatening to the group. In some cases, this aggressive person may remain in the group and not get expelled from it by administrators, and group members go on in their work while feeling threatened by this person's potential to become violent.


In these cases what is one to do? This is a situation I've recognized more than once over the years, in different settings and groups. I'm asking as if I'm a peer of the aggressive person. E.g. we're both students, we're both co-workers, and whether or not there is some hierarchy (e.g. project lead vs. project implementation staff), neither of us have sufficient administrative powers to remove the other from the group. Again the goal is ultimately personal safety, but achieved in such a way as to maintain group relations and avoid causing any unnecessary social or career harm. For example answers that suggest a group member outcast themselves are not really achieving the goal; while maybe an answer is simply remove yourself from the group, this is not always an easy option and is not a scalable approach that fellow group members can work with.

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    Can it be that you're looking for de-escalation skills? Then it may be better to focus a little more on that instead of 'How are group members to act' > That's a tad broad and can involve many non-Interpersonal Skills as well :) – Tinkeringbell Mar 23 '18 at 14:32
  • Could you be more specific about the identity of the aggressive person and your relation to them? Is it a peer, is it a student whereas you're member of the administration?... – LinuxBlanket Mar 23 '18 at 14:35
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    @Tinkeringbell de-escalation is potentially the right answer here. If there were a tag for it, it'd be more suitable than "conflict aversion". But still I lack specifics, and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De-escalation doesn't offer much (can't put a fellow adult student or colleague in time out, though that might be helpful!) – cr0 Mar 23 '18 at 14:49
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    Hahah, Well, I've added the tag for you, now hope someone writes a good, referenced answer about how to deescalate given your situation! – Tinkeringbell Mar 23 '18 at 16:21
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    Good point. I'll see how it goes here and if not well I'll just ask a moderator to move the question there – cr0 Mar 23 '18 at 20:21
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In these cases what is one to do?

My answer will focus more on pre-emptive conflict prevention because although completely preventing conflict may be impossible/undesirable, knowing what to do and what not to do around a person of concern will greatly reduce the number and aggressiveness of said conflicts which makes it the most effective method in achieving your goal (personal safety).

Firstly, preventing and escalating conflict can both be done in healthy or unhealthy ways for a relationship. Escalating the conflict in an unhealthy way is usually the cause for the violent behaviour you are worried about. Preventing the conflict in an unhealthy way may not cause a violent outburst but it is still worth noting how not to do this as building a better relationship/method of dealing with conflict while not as direct of a solution, is still important when considering long-term solutions for co-workers or peers that you will be around for years to come.

Negative conflict cycles:

  • Competitive conflict escalation - This is the most common way people try to "deal" with conflict and it is also the most worrying. Competitive conflict escalation spawns an intense spiral of action and reaction and noticing and stopping this cycle is the crux of what you need to do if you want to ensure the safety of yourself/others in while regularly working with an aggressive and unpredictable person. Behaviours associated with this cycle are a rigid view on a problem where someone is right and someone is wrong. When a small disagreement gets over-analysed in order to "resolve" the conflict, it encourages aggressive/defensive interactions where people are likely to try and "win" the disagreement at all costs. They may bring up old baggage, bring down the other person/s and even make threats. Blaming, intensely critiquing and insisting on a certain perspective all cause the person to feel defensive and starts the competitive conflict escalation cycle all over again.
  • Avoidance - Avoidance is the approach that all conflict, of any sort is inherently bad. It occurs when someone changes the subject whenever there are any conflicting views and can result in an excess of unresolved issues and raise overall tensions between the person/s involved.
  • Chilling - Chilling is the approach that conflict is unimportant and occurs when someone drastically decreases the communication in a relationship with the belief that dealing with the conflict is not worth it. This results in the relationship effectively ending, it may avoid physical harm but is damaging to your efficiency in the workplace.

So how should you approach conflicts in order to prevent them from escalating?

By remaining calm, listening, keeping your viewpoints open and adaptable, focusing on the mutual goal when dealing with a conflict rather than your opposing differences and stopping any finger pointing/competitive conflict escalation behaviours as early as possible.

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Firstly I'd like to address your comment about how "we can't live in fear". While I agree that it is unproductive to have a life which is dictated by fear, fear is a very important survival mechanism, which should not be ignored for the sake of short term peace of mind. Instead, fear can and should be used productively in situations like the one you have described.

To report the aggressive person to a higher authority doesn't seem to make sense as they haven't actually committed any crime or even threatened to, they are just generally short-tempered, and escalating the situation in that way may just escalate their bad temper or aggressive behavior in the future.

I would suggest that reporting the aggressive person is absolutely a good first step in a situation like this. Although they are not yet guilty of a crime, if you recognize the potential for a situation to become violent or unsafe, a person with authority should be made aware. Sometimes behavioral subtleties can be missed by people such as managers who do not have daily interactions with the person in question, and unproductive outbursts or poor performance may not always be associated with violent tendencies. If you are concerned about the party in question becoming upset by this reporting, suggest that the manager or person in charge keep the interaction confidential, and simply make them aware of the concerns that you (and likely others) may have.

Making a superior aware of these kinds of concerns has several benefits:

  1. The superior will have a better understanding of the atmosphere the problematic person is creating in the workplace
  2. The superior may be prompted take steps to mitigate violent actions before they occur
  3. The superior may have additional insight for you to either prepare yourself or to alleviate your concerns

Beyond alerting a superior, I would say the best thing you can do for your personal safety is to have a plan

The first step you could take here is to make yourself aware of the policies and plans your school or workplace has in place in the event of an active shooter or another violent encounter.

I will use the school as an example since this is what you listed. A typical order of events might be something like this:

  1. Aggressive person begins committing violent acts
  2. Someone identifies this, and alerts the proper authorities
  3. Authorities receive the call, and implement their internal procedures to react

In the case of a school, alerting a professor or another faculty member will likely prompt them to contact the most convenient local authority such as campus security to make them aware of a potential future threat. Advanced knowledge like this is invaluable as a security person, because even though their job is to always be ready, advanced warning can really speed things along - for example, a responding officer can have weapons or protective equipment on hand,rather than having to run to several different places to retrieve necessary items. Seconds or minutes are very important in these cases.

regardless of whether the person in charge contacts the local authorities, you should as well. Multiple reports of the same potential threat make each one more credible. Furthermore, doing research ahead of time on what the proper authorities are to contact can greatly reduce response time in the event of a violent encounter, such as calling campus security directly prior to dialing 911.

Lastly, pay attention to your surroundings. I would say this applies all the time, but especially when you feel unsafe. Know where the exits are, if you can position yourself in your classroom or office in such a way that you have good visibility as well as several exit strategies, and have pertinent emergency phone numbers on speed dial.

  • Thanks for the thorough answer. That last paragraph is actually the most challenging I'm finding but it's more of a self defense/martial arts question. I'll explain: – cr0 Mar 27 '18 at 18:24
  • @cr0 please do :-) – Link0352 Mar 27 '18 at 19:03
  • In the instance I have in mind, while a supervisor was already notified, they are hesitant to do much. In the mean time, my station in the working space is pretty close to the entrance. So, worst case scenario, what do I do if someone comes in with guns blazing? Again not much of an interpersonal issue at that point if de-escalation has so drastically failed / insane anger has prevailed. – cr0 Mar 27 '18 at 20:07
  • And to expand on why it's not an IPS issue, though I'd appreciate any solutions there, it seems to me at that point the details of your last paragraph depends a lot on the details of each case. Where's the desk oriented, the doors, windows, hiding spots, how quickly can help arrive, etc. But if I'm right near the door at a desk, it seems there's not much I can do to protect myself if I'm unlucky enough to be there and be a target? – cr0 Mar 27 '18 at 20:08
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    Well, as @elliot svensson pointed out, this becomes an IPS question when it comes to your perceived safety. During your discussion with your superior, you could request to be moved to a location that makes you less likely to be a primary target if someone comes in guns blazing. The department of homeland security has some documentation on how to respond to an active shooter here . The general consensus is that if there is no room or time to flee, your chances of survival are greatly increased by attacking rather than fleeing. – Link0352 Mar 27 '18 at 20:16
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Those outbursts are dealt with by administrators but are not always grounds to permanently remove the aggressive member of the group. Eventually after so many outbursts and continued poor performance, the aggressive person is told their time with the group is up and they'll have to leave at a certain date.

...group members go on in their work while feeling threatened by this person's potential to become violent.

You should let the administrators know how the situation makes you feel, privately.

In addressing the group's need for safety, which they seem to believe has been addressed, administrators are responsible for your perceived safety, that is, your reasonable expectation of not coming to harm by participating in the group. If there is no way to change the plan regarding this individual, the administrators should provide you some accommodation.

Wikipedia's entry on safety has some more information about the distinction of "perceived safety" and other categories, such as normative and substantive safety. So much to say, perceived safety is an important component of Safety.

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    Also, if there's some form of written proof such a conversation took place (e.g. an email sent afterwards that summarizes the discussion, in a neutral tone an absent of any accusations) people are more likely to act, if only to cover their butts. – Peter Mar 27 '18 at 20:51

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