Q: I scan the news and it seems more people than ever are resorting to out of the blue violence. I have a job where I interact a lot with the public and am going to work scared. Are there tools you offer for those of us that work extensively with the public and would like to avoid being the target of violence?
A: Yes, if you want to make it less likely you will be a target of random violence you need to check your ego at the door. Give up needing to be right, power struggles, and demanding understanding or validation from your customers. A customer that is unstable and feels invalidated is much more likely to be a perpetrator of violence at their perceived offender.
You're correct that all over our country random violence is increasing. The problem isn't just that we have access to guns. The problem is that we have a mental health crisis that has been brewing with little relief throughout the pandemic. Mentally unstable people with access to guns are a deadly combination.
Some news events about violence describes attacks that are entirely unprovoked. Like a young mother pumping gas that was beaten up by a stranger. The only thing this woman could have done is to be situationally aware that a weird stranger was approaching her. Dropping the gas pump, jumping into her car, and locking it would have seemed strange but kept her safe.
Any time we're out in public we should be extremely situationally aware. Staring at our phones, listening to music or daydreaming means people that are ill have more room to do us harm. You always want to listen to your gut in public. If anything seems off it is better to leave, or make yourself safe even if you look foolish to others.
When experts evaluate violent events they notice many people would have avoided harm just by creating space between themselves and the attacker, going into a public space, or taking evasive action. You'll get over looking foolish. You may not get over an attack by an unstable person.
Other than unprovoked attacks the most common variable in workplace violence is when we choose to engage in a power struggle. Insulting anyone, demanding compliance, or criticizing customers are not smart actions. If you are engaged with someone in an escalating situation, you're better off paraphrasing their concerns and providing understanding.
Again your gut instincts are your survival instincts. If a customer is escalating and you sense they are mentally unstable, use any excuse necessary to calm them down. Retreat to a safe place and consult with your management. Any manager would rather have a heads up that a customer may be a potential threat than have a crisis unfold.
Some phrases that are helpful when someone is mentally ill include: “You may be right,” “I see your point,” or “You have every right to be upset.” Most mentally ill people are less likely to attack someone that behaves like an ally than someone that acts like an adversary.
In dealing with the public do not assume that everyone you encounter has the same level of mental health as you. In the short run, your ego may take a beating when you feel you are right and you decline an argument but your body will be safer.
Daneen Skube can be reached at 1420 N.W. Gilman Blvd., No. 2845, Issaquah, WA 98027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.