Human Aggression Management: Defuse and Deescalate to Defend

Human aggression is a psychological term. It refers to a wide range of observable concerning behavior that may result in both psychological or physical harm to oneself, another, and or your immediate environment. 

Aggression is predominantly focused on harming another person. It can be an expression of anger or hostility, competition with others, asserting dominance, reacting to pain or fear, intimidation, or a straight-up threat to another. 

It has been around since the first caveman attempted to assert his ambitions of dominance over the second caveman. Human aggression can manifest through harassment, annoyance, irritation, embarrassment, verbal abuse, physical violence, and other responses.

Angry Fist stock photo

Levels of human aggression can escalate from a heated conversation to a shouting match, to a scuffle, to a fist fight, then, at the very highest end, personal combat results in you fighting for life and limb. Each level of increased human aggression is commensurate with a parallel escalation or scale of injury, demonstrating a relationship between human aggression and injury potential. The greater the level of aggression, the greater your potential for incurring severe bodily injury or even death.

Violent crimes are a common expression of human aggression. Street fights, gang beatdowns, drive-by shootings, the knockout game, home invasions, and human trafficking are all real-world examples of the expression of human aggression. All of which can be effectively managed.

Human aggression can escalate and de-escalate based on circumstances surrounding its manifestation. Law enforcement and protective services experts acknowledge a relationship between aggression and injury – the higher the level of aggression is allowed to escalate, the higher your potential for injury. However, the same experts can manage injury potential by managing aggression. 

Hailing from the world of protective services, there are three tools you can add to your tool kit to best manage human aggression toward maintaining the lowest possible scale of injury. These are:

  • spotting, recognizing, or identifying a physical manifestation or expression of human aggression,
  • matching its position on the sliding scale of aggression, and then last but certainly not least,
  • taking control of it. 

Spotting Aggression

picture panels of a couple having an argument

Identifying human aggression is certainly not complicated. You may have already witnessed it in one form or another, starting in grade school. If you observe the dynamics of human interaction at home, at work, while out shopping or running errands, at a gas station, at a concert, or at a coffee shop, there’s a chance you can readily observe where people may be on the emotional spectrum – happy, sad, depressed, anxious, nervous, tense, angry, calm, based on their body language.

You can further develop your observation skills by looking for non-verbal cues of human aggression. As part of your soft skills training, try running this ‘body language drill’ next time you are in a situation to observe other people discretely. 

Find a position in the room or environment where you will most likely not be observed or engaged. Look for two or more people in a conversation. When you find a suitable scenario, carefully observe their interpersonal interactions and look for subtle non-verbal signs such as hand gestures, facial expressions, changes in body position such as crossing legs or arms, hands on hips, pointing a finger, and the like. Try to assess their non-verbal communication. What would you determine as their interaction’s mood, emotion, or demeanor?

Another identifier of human aggression is verbal cues. If you are in earshot of the interaction, are they speaking in a low to moderate tone? Is there an observable acoustic change in volume, intention, or emotion? 

Lastly, combine the two – non-verbal and verbal. A change in body language usually accompanies a change in vocal intensity. Recall a time when you recognized human aggression. Were you able to see the connection between verbal escalation and change in body language?

Couple having an argument

Match its level

Should you be a participant in an escalating aggression scenario and your intention is to de-escalate, then you don’t want to meet anger with batting eyelashes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you don’t want to scream at the top of your lungs with someone who is whispering to you. Akin to applying appropriate use of force to a violent physical altercation, applying appropriate communication level helps to connect with that other person who may be escalated, at a ‘shared frequency’ where you might be able to establish an initial connection.

Establishing such an initial connection all by itself can sometimes positively affect the situation when the other person or persons realize that they now have your undivided attention in that you have at least acknowledged their position on the spectrum.

Control it

person holding up their palm

Law enforcement is adept at aggression de-escalation and is trained to employ uniformed or command presence, a polite but assertive voice, and at first to connect with that person. As a civilian, you may not have the uniformed presence part, but you can undoubtedly assert a command but non-intimidating and non-confrontational presence. You don’t want them to walk all over you like a doormat, but you cannot appear confrontational, which will add fuel to the already burning fire.

The overall concept here is to dial back the flame under the already boiling pot of water – not add to it. 

Changing your volume and tone of voice plus your body language – for example, presenting both of your open palms to the other person (a universal non-verbal sign of ‘surrender’) can often de-escalate the situation.

You can’t fix something you can’t see. So the first step to managing human aggression is to recognize it. Upon identification, the next step is to connect with that person on a compatible frequency. Lastly, take control of the situation by setting your rheostat to reduce interaction dynamics to an even more manageable level effectively.

palm help up to a fist

Steve Tarani is a former fulltime CIA protective programs employee, small arms and defensive tactics subject matter expert who served on POTUS 45 pre-election executive protection detail. He is the lead instructor for NRA’s non-ballistic weapons training program offered nationally. Tarani is also a DoD and FLETC-certified federal firearms instructor who has been on staff at Gunsite Academy (AZ) as a Rangemaster for over twenty years. Formerly sworn, he is also a former federal contractor and service provider for the US Defense Intelligence Community, US Naval Special Operations Command and other government agencies. Tarani additionally serves on the National Sheriffs’ Association Committee for School Safety and Security.

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