Sounding off about verbal abuse

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Lessthan 5 per cent of training courses deal with verbal abuse, yet it makes up to90 per cent of all reported incidents of violence. Walter Brennan examines thescale of the problemDespite including verbal abuse within the Health and Safety Executive’s definitionof workplace violence as: ‘any incident where staff are abused, threatened orassaulted in circumstances related to their work’, the reality is that verbalabuse continues to be disturbingly under-acknowledged, and just as poorlyaddressed. In fact, there are a number of definitions of verbal abuse. Cooper et aldescribed it as: ‘overt or subtle verbalisations ranging from profanity andopenly hostile remarks about competency, to double edged comments, gossip andrumours’.1 A simple definition adopted by Cooper during training courses is: ‘Languageintended to cause distress to the target’. I emphasise the word ‘intended’ asthere are occasions and situations when people may be distressed or angry andthe consequence may well be verbal abuse, but such circumstances are oftenregarded with empathy (‘I know how and why they feel this way’).2 This type of verbal abuse, referred to by Maier as ‘hot’ verbal abuse,3 canoften be dealt with through good de-escalation. It is the ‘cold’ verbal abusethat many respondents find much more challenging, offensive or distressing. What kind of verbal abuse do staff find most distressing? I designed and provided a list of 15 different statements (see box, p24) andasked participants to list the statements they found least troubling, throughto the most challenging/distressing/annoying. In other words, the statements that made them feel compelled to take someform of action, whether it was to walk away, retaliate physically or verbally,or become upset. The participants in the study comprised 80 healthcare staff, 32 call centrestaff, 24 local authority employees and 30 retail staff. The statements used in the questionnaire were taken from anecdotalinformation provided by victims who have previously been the targets of verbalabuse. In an attempt to categorise the statements, they were grouped as: – Inappropriate use of language: numbers 1, 2, 9 – a reasonable request butone sullied by the use of bad or inappropriate language – Non-personal statements: numbers 3, 5 – Criticism of a service ororganisation, rather than a person – Patronising, arrogant to person: numbers 4, 8 – Superior approach used tomake the recipient feel inadequate and inferior – Threatening and offensive to person: numbers 6, 7, 10,12 – Serious threatto the personal well being of person targeted and the use of offensive andviolent language – Unfair, erroneous statement about the person or situation: numbers 11, 13,14, 15 – Statements are critical, abusive and factually incorrect. It is not always possible to pigeon hole each type of verbal abuse into oneof the types listed above, but such a classification may prove useful forfurther research. Many workers who responded to the questionnaire reported that although theydidn’t feel they were in any physical danger, they experienced anxiety, an urgeto cry, a sense of freezing up and inadequacy, a desire to run away, and evenan urge to retaliate and say something just as offensive or ‘cutting’ back tothe abuser. Several victims described being tearful and unable to get theexperience out of their thoughts. The statement the majority of women regarded as the most distressing wasnumber 10: ‘You f***ing b*tch/ba***rd. You deserve to be raped and killed forwhat you’ve done to me’, which was described as offensive, threatening and‘very scary’. This statement is obviously distressing as the aggressor is using bothspecific and serious threats, ‘wrapped up’ in offensive language. The second most disturbing statement was number 12. This was the one themajority of men found the most distressing (84.3 per cent) – not because of thethreat of violence, but because of the potential stigma of being referred to asa paedophile. As one male retail employee stated: “The thought that Icould be labelled a paedophile in the current climate is a terrifying thought.This scared me but also made me feel very angry that people are allowed to makesuch wicked and slanderous statements free from any form of sanction.” The five statements found to be most ‘challenging’ by those who completedthe questionnaire were: – No.10 = 48.9 per cent – No.12 = 16.8 per cent – No.6 = 13.1 per cent – No.15 = 9.6 per cent – No.11 = 3.8 per cent – No.1 = 3 per cent – Others = 2.8 per cent Interestingly, when asked the source of the verbal abuse, more than aquarter of the respondents (26 per cent) identified colleagues and/or managersas the perpetrators. This highlights the fact that verbal abuse between staffis a prime example of workplace bullying. Triggers of verbal abuse Verbal abuse occurs for many reasons, ranging from frustration over aperceived failure of a service or long waiting times, through to situationswhere it is used to cause emotional or psychological distress to the target. Other triggers may be: – Distress – Anger – Confusion – Alcohol/ drugs – Perceived injustice – Poor communication skills – Means of domination – ‘Because they can’ – Mental health problem – Us Why is verbal abuse distressing? Verbal abuse is psychologically damaging because it can be used todeliberately cause insult and ‘hurt’ to the target. The impact of verbal abuse can prove to be psychologically damaging and iscapable of producing symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. Such symptoms may include anxiety, depression, psychosomatic disorders andavoidance behaviours, which are just a few of the symptoms reported by victimsof verbal abuse. Other reported consequences included ‘acute embarrassment’, and the ‘desireto smash a chair over their head’. Lenehan and Turner said that employees who had been victims of violenceexpressed such symptoms as crying spells, feelings of unworthiness, lack ofdirection and motivation, fatigue, irritability, and sleep and eatingdisturbances.4 The role of the manager Verbal abuse can be extremely distressing for the victims, and employers areincreasingly being exposed through civil actions for failing to address this majorthreat to their staff’s mental health. Violence became a serious health and safety issue as a result of theReporting of Injuries Dangerous Disease Occurrence Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR),which came into effect on the 1 April 1996. However, as mentioned above, thedefinition of violence includes verbal abuse, and therefore employers must putsystems in place to reduce the risk of violence. To achieve this, staff must beprovided with training to develop the skills needed to cope with verbal abuse. The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act emphasises a requirement foremployers to provide a ‘safe working environment’.5 The need to ensure mentalhealth is protected and promoted is becoming increasingly crucial. The 1998 Human Rights Act (Article 3) identifies the right of individuals tobe free from torture and inhumane treatment.6 It can be argued that verbalabuse can be psychologically tortuous, not to mention inhumane, if leftunaddressed. Reports of incidents of verbal abuse must be recorded and taken just asseriously as acts of physical violence. What the individual can do How do you respond to verbal abuse? Do you just ignore it? Don’t take itpersonally? Laugh, apologise, cry or retaliate? The fact is, we can respond toverbal abuse with any of the above. But one of the most important elements ofmanaging people and situations is to ‘know yourself’. Situations can vary in terms of how they are perceived and responded to, sostaff must be able to ask themselves: ‘How do I feel today?’. They should alsoconsider how they come across, and whether they are saying one thing whiletheir body language is saying something else. Self-talk Self-talk is a concept developed to help people cope in stressfulsituations. Imagine you are walking into a situation you feel frightened about – forexample, an interview. We often tell ourselves it is scary, and wonder whetherwe will be able to cope. Then we may say to ourselves: ‘Behave yourself, it’sonly an interview’, which has a steadying effect on us. This is how we use self-talk. It is designed to reduce your anxiety, anger,distress and it is done by ourselves. So imagine you are listening to someone shouting down the phone at you,calling you an idiot and threatening to sue you and so forth. You may want toscream back: ‘Drop dead!’. This is a natural response to what is often anunfair attack. But next time, stop for a second and start telling yourself:‘I’m not stupid, I’m an excellent adviser. I’m very good at my job. I will notbecome angry and I will not become upset. I will manage this situationpositively.’ Putting it into perspective Think about the worst experience you have had in your life. Then give it ascore, 100 being the highest. Then attach a score to the verbal abuse you havejust experienced. How does it compare? Hopefully, it should be insignificant in comparison, and this should enableus to keep the issue in perspective. This in no way attempts to trivialise or detract from the seriousness ofverbal abuse, but it is another way of helping you to stay mentally well, andnot become distressed by verbal abuse. Cognitive restructuring This is designed to make us aware of the role ‘cognitions’ (thoughts, ideas)and emotions play in worsening and maintaining stress. Novaco postulated the theorythat not all events are intrinsically provoking7 – often, it is the way inwhich the situation is interpreted. Cognitive restructuring allows us to reframe a statement or a situation – inother words, to see it from a different perspective. Maybe rather thanthinking, ‘He’s just a foul-mouthed pig’, try thinking: ‘Is there a reason whyhe’s saying what he’s saying?’ Or ‘I can feel myself welling up inside. I’m going to cry’. This can bereplaced with: ‘I can manage this situation. I can stay in control and I willmanage this situation better’. Mantra Using mantras is an effective way of focusing upon one element or factor,because they are used to meditate and can be used for relaxation. Mantras enables us to develop ‘fire walls’ – help to make us less vulnerableto abuse and possibly retaliating by saying something that can inflame thesituation or result in us being disciplined, or even worse, sacked. Think of a mantra, a word or a couple of words that you can recite over andover in your mind to help alleviate the situation. Conclusion There are a number of techniques you can use to help deal with verbal abuse.These are summarised below. – Assess what the person is saying – Support yourself with self-talk. Say to yourself: ‘I’m ok, just try torelax’ – Mantra: ‘Safe and sound, safe and sound’ – Reassure yourself by thinking: ‘I’ll be alright. I can manage this and Iwill manage this’ – Tell yourself that when this is over, you can reward yourself with a treatfor using positive self-talk – Tell the aggressor you want them to stop talking to you in such a way – If you can, ask the person why they feel they can talk to you in this way – Try to view the verbal abuse as being an expression of the offendingperson’s underlying problem – Try to keep to your party line – repeat what you are trying to say andkeep going – If you are struggling to cope, don’t be afraid of walking away or puttingthe telephone down – If the person is a colleague, say: ‘I’m not prepared to listen to thisbecause it is a health and safety issue’. References 1. Cooper, A; Saxe-Braithwaite, M; & Anthony, R (1996), Verbal abuse ofhospital staff, The Canadian Nurse, 92(6), 31-4 2. Brennan W (2001), Dealing with Verbal abuse, Emergency Nurse, Vol.9 No.5pps.15-17 3. Maier G (1996), Managing threatening behaviour. The role of talk down andtalk up, Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, 34, 6, 25-30 4. Lenehan GP; Turner J (1984), Treatment of staff victims of violence. InTurner J (ed) Violence in a Medical Care Setting: A Survival Guide, Maryland,US 5. Health and Safety At Work etc Act (1974), London, HMSO 6. Human Rights Act 1998 7. Novaco R (1978), Anger and coping with stress. In Foreyt JP and RathzenDP (eds), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, New York, Plenum Press Script for verbal abuseConsider the impact of each of these statements and score themaccording to this scale:1. No impact at all – negligible, it is not a problem2. Slightly irritating – You may feel the need to respond tothat statement3. Irritating – You feel you must challenge or respond to thestatement4. Offensive – You are offended/angered by the statement andwant to retaliate verbally5. Distressing – You find the statement so distressing, youfind it impossible to respond in a rational mannerAfter you have scored the statementsbelow, think about a response and write one beneath each statement1. ‘Excuse me sweetheart, could you please f**king well tell mehow long you are going to f**king well be?’2. ‘You don’t ‘alf sound sexy, I wouldn’t mind taking you out.’3. ‘This place is a joke, the service is a disgrace, you don’tgive a damn about people. It’s gone right downhill.’4. ‘Listen to me you stupid woman/boy. I’m trying to explainthe problem.’5. ‘This is the fifth time I’ve called you today, and haven’tspoken to the same person twice. It’s a waste of time.’6. ‘If you speak to me like that one more time, I’ll come overthere and rip your f**king head off.’7. ‘How dare you speak to me like that. You’re a liar. A cheapliar, nothing else.’8. ‘Listen, if you had a brain you wouldn’t be doing this job,so just do as you’re told.’9. ‘Put me on to the sl*g/w**ker I was talking to before,please.’10. ‘You f**king b**ch/ba**ard. You deserve to be raped andkilled for what you’ve done to me.’11. ‘Sl*t, sl*t, sl*g, tramp, sl*t.’12. ‘You w**ker, you f**king paedophile. I will kill you.’13. ‘Tell me, what’s it like being a moron earning a pittance?’14. ‘No wonder your partner is screwing around, you’re useless.’15. ‘My (close relative) is dying, it should be you.’WalterBrennan is a training consultant specialising in conflict. He runs a coursecalled ‘Sticks and Stones – dealing with verbal abuse in the workplace’, www.oliverbrennan.co.uk Sounding off about verbal abuseOn 1 Nov 2003 in Personnel Todaylast_img read more