The Safety Training Weave

The standard approach for most conflict management/occupational violence management training programs is to deliver a series of independent and separate sub-topics, with information designed to prepare a person to manage situations where a customer becomes aggressive, abusive, volatile or violent. Those topics/modules might include

·        Monitoring Customer Behaviour,

·        Recognising Escalating Behaviour,

·        Identifying Appropriate Communication Skills,

·        Adopting Situational and Environmental Safety Measures,

·        Resolving Disruptive or Unlawful Activity,

·        Controlling Persons Using Empty Hand Techniques, and

·        Managing Crisis Situations

BUT course participants will often leave the training with some lingering doubt about how these modules thread together. The truth is that much of the learning takes place in the transitions between the modules, not just within the module. So, what does this mean?

Imagine this scenario (because that’s what your students will do!) ...

You notice that a customer (client, passenger, patient, student or visitor) is exhibiting aberrant behaviour and you immediately intervene using your best customer service skills, as taught in all of your training. BUT that customer proceeds to get angrier and you find yourself asking, “How and when do I transition from customer service communication to the communication taught in the conflict management module?” So you stumble forward, dumping one set of communication strategies and launching into another set, only to notice that the person now seems to have escalated to a point where your generic communication lacks penetration. You then ask yourself if it’s time to transition to the next module ... to more tactical  actions. So, you shut down your communication and begin edging towards the exit, only to have the customer notice this and start following you. Now you wonder ... “At what stage am I supposed to put my hands up, adopt a defensive stance and announce that I want the customer to stay back? Will that exacerbate the situation? Is there communication that should accompany that move? Do I simply drop my conflict communication?” Finally, you say something overly loud and forceful and the customer steps back, wondering why you were so feverish and advising you that they weren’t being aggressive, just trying to make a point. Mortified, you make a lame excuse about not knowing what their intentions were and try to find another communication strategy that fits this new development.

It becomes quite apparent that separating these modules into a set of principals based upon a rigid scenario has limited utility. It also highlights the danger of teaching one module only, which happens with regularity. Organisations will plan for a half-day workshop focusing on communication skills, for example, which is but one loose thread from the overall weave. Some months later they schedule time for another module, which becomes another individual thread, sitting beside the first on the loom of workplace safety. What is far more effective is to have an integrated approach, where each skill is seen as a thread in an overall fabric, rather than an individual skill. One thread must relate to the others.

To use a martial arts analogy, skills are meant to be combined into a fluid movement, all occurring at once. Leg checks and kicks combine with foot manoeuvres, head movement and hand strikes, all in a seamless manner, rather than, for example, remaining in a fixed stance and punching with the left only until you get inkling that a right might be needed. 

To circle that back to corporate conflict management, AS you observe and analyse the customer’s behaviour (body language, tone of voice and verbal cues), you apply the most appropriate communication techniques. You do this AS you take note of the physical surroundings and adjust your position (relative to the threats, the environmental hazards, any supports or resources you may have around you and the most available exits and AS you consider pushing the silent alarm to alert others.) This all happens AS you adopt a covert, but ready, physical posture and maintain an appropriate distance, considering nearby barriers and barricades.

The skills above are a mere glimpse of what it takes to be safe during a workplace confrontation (or any confrontation, for that matter), but it is possible to develop these skills once we let go of the notion (and training structure) that dictates that our learning should come in the form of individual modules. Consider, instead, teaching people to weave these skills into a tight safety fabric via the use of role-plays, case studies, footage analysis or scenario-based activities that test the transitions mentioned above.

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