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November 30, 2012 6:09 PM   Subscribe

How can I increase my exposure to interpersonal aggression in order to get better at handling it?

I'm a reasonably assertive person, and when I'm expecting conflict I can ice-up and typically handle it pretty well. However, I have what seems to be a relatively intense anxiety response and when I'm caught of guard I have a tendency to really shatter.

I'll have to limit the details, but yesterday I was in a work situation where somebody unexpectedly acted very (verbally) aggressive toward me and I went all 'lights and sirens,' got very shaky, and looked very weak and scattered in front of a lot of people.

I can't allow this to happen again. It seems that exposure to being blind-sided by aggression is the only way to get better at dealing with it. However, for what should be obvious reasons, it's hard to think of ways to manufacture these type of 'caught off guard' aggression situations. Any thoughts? Other suggestions for dealing with this issue?

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe take some assertiveness training that allows you to model and practice responses? It's also a strange society we live in where bullying in a work environment is a tactic to preserve, enhance or destroy status. Perhaps you ought to talk to a manager about what happened?
posted by KokuRyu at 6:43 PM on November 30, 2012

Practice these phrases:

"Thank you for that feedback, Joe."

Next, if they continue the behavior (say, in a meeting with lots of other people), say,

"I've heard your point already, Joe, let's take this offline later so we can continue with our meeting topic. Now... blah, blah, blah the widget, blah, blah..."

At which time if Joe keeps hammering his negative verbage at you, he looks like the ass, not you.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:52 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the challenge the OP has is a physical "fight-or-flight" response. It is not a behaviour that can be easily modified.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:05 PM on November 30, 2012

When I was learning negotiation and mediation, we'd have groups of people in to role play various parts in the negotiation, and we'd practice the negotiation with all of the complex interplay the many parties would be having among themselves, with emotions running high and so on. It was tremendously useful to be the negotiator in this stressful negotiation that was actually just for practice, and then to be able to debrief people afterwards -- "Why were you reacting like this to that suggestion?"

I suggest you try something similar. Gather a few close friends with pizza and beer. Assign them roles -- "My talented boss whom I want to impress, here's some stuff about her personality and our relationship." "You'll be Joe, who got all verbally aggressive with me, I don't really know his deal but he works on a related project." "You'll be Sonia, my underling." And then have the meeting and have Joe get up in your face and try some different responses to defuse the tension and shut down his aggression. The beauty is, you try it, and people say, "I thought that was really good when you tore him a new one but as your boss I might have been a little put-off because you didn't keep your cool." And Joe says, "Yeah, I felt like I wanted to fight with you MORE." (Don't worry, people get into their roles!) So you do it again and try something different, try a few things, until you find one that you feel comfortable with. And then you do some role-playing where you respond that way and Joe responds by getting huffy and leaving, or by escalating the fight, or whatever, so you get practice with the aftermath.

The best way to get practice with this kind of interaction is to practice it in a low-stakes way where you can debrief with the other characters in the drama. Second best is to run it in your head 40 different ways. And once you've got a few responses you feel comfortable with, imagine those scenarios in your head until you feel pretty good that you'll respond that way in real life.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:13 PM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Strangely, you may find Landmark useful for this if you believe you will not be otherwise negatively impacted by the nature of the cult.
posted by rr at 8:17 PM on November 30, 2012

Eyebrows McGee has a good plan, and I'll back up Marie Mon Dieu's script as well, with one addition -- aggression is designed to make you react right now. If you take time out of the equation, you take away the aggressor's power. "Let me think about that" lets you leave the scenario and stop the aggressor from maneuvering you into the wrong decision right now. Physically back away if you have to. It doesn't make you the weaker person unless you let it.
posted by Etrigan at 8:30 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

KokuRyu: "I think the challenge the OP has is a physical "fight-or-flight" response. It is not a behaviour that can be easily modified."

Respectfully, I disagree. Role play and rehearsal can be very helpful for learning to deal with this kind of thing. In my experience, if you go through something like this repeatedly in a safe setting with people you trust, the physiological part becomes defused. Then when something similar comes up in reality, the adrenaline rush doesn't take over and it's possible to respond more constructively.
posted by Lexica at 8:43 PM on November 30, 2012

WAS the reaction you had one of fight or flight, or was it some thought reaction you had: "oh god, people will think I lost control of the meeting," "oh god, people will think I'm stupid," "he's so snarky and cool, why am i a loser?"

Sometimes these scenarios rattle because they push all your buttons. The more you know what your buttons are, the faster you can un-push them. "The meeting is actually still under control." "Self, making one mistake doesn't mean you're stupid." "Being 'cool' is nothing compared to being a kind person." The more you know your vulnerabilities, the more you can have effective antidotes on hand.
posted by salvia at 8:48 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

. Role play and rehearsal can be very helpful for learning to deal with this kind of thing. In my experience, if you go through something like this repeatedly in a safe setting with people you trust, the physiological part becomes defused. Then when something similar comes up in reality, the adrenaline rush doesn't take over and it's possible to respond more constructively

Actually, you and I agree. I don't think this is a challenge that can be overcome by adjusting one's inner monologue.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:07 PM on November 30, 2012

Due to expected gender roles from society - these kinds of questions can really benefit from the asker stating their identified with gender, and perhaps their level of physical ability levels.

Role playing games (RPG)! (or Toastmaster for those who have an aversion for whatever reason to "dungeons&dragons")

Joining a good open fun friendly tabletop RPG group could be an avenue to practice responses to many different situations and improve your confidence when encountering similar situations in real life.

Once you've barely just been able to hack a Tarasque to death, repeatedly, for 24 hours straight on the strength of a potion (magical drug) while you're "friends" (friends in real life, "friends" in the context of the roleplaying game) just robbed you... it's an excuse to practice trying on a bunch of different emotions.

RPGs are a great avenue to practice IRL stuff, but you'll need a good sane group of RPers to play with.
posted by porpoise at 9:08 PM on November 30, 2012

Easy way to get what you want is to start doing a lot of street photography. In the US it is legal to photograph anyone and almost anything as long as you are on public property. Use a camera with a large lens and in a few days you will get confrontations, especially if you shoot kids.
Google "photography is not a crime" and "photographers rights" and watch the videos before you go forth.
At first when you are confronted you may have your usual response. Take a breath, tell the person "i'm not discussing this" and walk away. Eventually, armed with the knowledge that you are exercising your first amendment rights, you may be able to calmly stand up for yourself.
posted by Sophont at 12:48 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're pro-choice, volunteer as a patient escort at an abortion clinic.
posted by availablelight at 4:46 AM on December 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


the skills i learned via sports -- boxing and rugby in particular -- changed EVERYTHING about how i respond in those taken-by-surprise moments of aggression. it's like i literally learned how to take a hit and keep going, and it's totes transferable to the rest of my life. YMMV. feel free to msg me if you want, i think about this stuff a lot!
posted by crawfo at 5:29 AM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get to the bottom of why you have this reaction. Did you have a critical parent so you felt your survival was threatened if you stood up for yourself?

Also look into martial arts or other athletic options with an aggressive piece. Martial arts isn't about aggression but it is about not getting worked up if someone aggresses at you.

Ditto to the idea of role playing.
posted by hungry hippo at 6:31 AM on December 1, 2012

Hmm, maybe video games could help with this? I especially recommend the Left 4 Dead series, since the central dynamic is that you're walking down a hallway, and everything's quiet, and then suddenly HOLY SHIT SO MANY ZOMBIES!
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:22 AM on December 1, 2012

People who work in customer service are on the receiving end of unprovoked aggression all the time! Do you have time for some part time work on the weekend? Preferably somewhere busy and where people will be a bit stressed--like a dollar store.

(Probably not a practical solution for you, OP--but I thought of it immediately when I read the question. Retail and other customer service work has certainly improved my ability to deal with aggression.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:54 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't encounter this much but it helps me to keep in mind, this person is looking to get a reaction out of me & I'm not going to give them what they want. Emotionally (with practice) I try to feel somewhere between annoyed and disgusted, like isn't it a shame that this person insists on embarrassing him/herself with unprofessional behavior. And I would really be doing them a favor if I were to just ignore the pushy/aggressive attitude and keep an even tone in my response, like, "All right, let's move on." "Thanks for your feedback." "Proceed, Governor." YMMV

(Seriously, some recent presidential/vice presidential and primary debates are a good way to watch at a high stakes level where the candidate can be pretty verbally aggressive at times and the other candidate has to respond quickly and absolutely cannot look rattled by it. Obama v Romney, Biden v Ryan, Hillary v Obama in New Hampshire 2008, Kerry v Bush, etc.)
posted by citron at 2:27 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

How can I increase my exposure to interpersonal aggression in order to get better at handling it? = Ride crowded public transit at rush hour? Take a customer service job?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:11 PM on December 1, 2012

Work with people who have mental health problems, or in complaints handling (especially near Christmas!)
posted by EatMyHat at 7:04 PM on December 1, 2012

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