Dealing with an Active Shooter

This is an excellent video.  


Reading Aggression on the Face

Did you know that most of what you say is not with your words—around 90 percent of communication is non-verbal.  Around 55 to 60 percent of non-verbal falls into the category of body language.  Why is this important to mention here?  Because reading body language correctly lends itself greatly towards perceiving aggression and potential violence.

Several great books have been written on the subject of facial expressions, as they are a key place to look for affect display, i.e. emotions.  It’s hard for us to completely hide what we feel, and though we may diligently try, we often unconsciously reveal what is going on in our brains in the form of micro-expressions.  One of the world’s leading experts on facial expressions is Dr. Paul Ekman, who is also expert and inspiration for the TV show Lie to Me.  He literally mapped out facial expressions based on the musculature utilized and catalogued facial expressions.  It turns out that we cannot make certain expressions on purpose—they happen under our own conscious radar.  There is a direct link between emotions and the face, and we are even able to create emotions, working backwards, by assuming certain facial expressions.  Very fascinating stuff.  I say all this to let you know there is a lot of scientific study in this area!  I have yet to get around to Ekman’s book Unmasking the Face, but it is on my to-do for this year.

In other resources, including Management of Aggressive Behavior, I have discovered interesting bits of information as they pertain to the face and aggression.  Smiling, apparently, is akin to snarling in the wild (we are still members of the animal kingdom, after all).  A smile with just the mouth (and not the eyes) looks a lot like primates bearing their teeth.  Tension often shows in the face, as the muscles in the face tend to contract when we are under mental duress.  In addition to tense facial muscles, here are some other possible signs of potential aggression:

  • Teeth clenching
  • Pale skin (also possibly fear)
  • Darkening of skin (anger)
  • Distortion of the face on the left side
  • Bearing teeth (a snarling smile, perhaps?)
  • Lips quivering (anxiety)
  • Lips tensing (anger, high potential for physical violence)

These are just some signs, and as I am discovering in Allan Pease’s book Body Language, we often have to read expressions, micro-expressions, gestures and micro-gestures in clusters to get the full picture of what is going on.  Not impossible to do, but it takes a little practice.  One easy way to practice is to watch people out in public, or even mute shows on TV, and attempt to discover the emotional gist of the situation by reading the face and the body.  Keep in mind that the hearing-impaired have to do this all the time!  Nevertheless, the rest of us rely on it more than we realize to size up situations.

I will be writing more on body language in future posts.

Effective Speaking and Conflict Management

I recently blogged about conflict management and the utilization of active listening.  I truly believe that listening to people, in the majority of conflict situations, helps to de-escalate things considerably; we all want to have confirmation that we have been understood.  We can help guide an interaction in various ways.  Many of us, because we are already tapped out from our busy lives, often choose the easy, and I’ll go ahead and say it, the LAZY route with people, even if the “resolution” is not the ideal.  Sometimes we want to wrap things up as quickly as possible, and that is not always the most advantageous route, especially if we’re dealing with angry clients or co-workers.  Just as active listening is important, so is effective speaking.  How many times have you gotten in an argument and spewed out hateful words, only for those words to come back and haunt you later?  It truly takes a humble man or woman to accept a tirade calmly and redirect it down a path towards collaboration.  It’s not an easy task, and those who are effective in conflict/confrontational management are creating art when they smooth things out.  Some people seem to have an innate ability, or fantastic social intelligence and display adeptness at diplomacy in pre-school.  Nevertheless, it is something we can all learn, practice and improve upon!

Choosing the right words in a situation can make all the difference.  Granted, most of what you say is non-verbal, but a careless word can still incite rage and cause grief forever.  When you are trying to resolve an issue, state the problem carefully without focusing too much on the fact that there is a problem.  Everyone is painfully aware there is an elephant in the room, which is why the conflict arose in the first place.  Show respect to the other party and speak for yourself.  Try using open statements that encourage dialogue, as closed statements, or very definitive statements tend to shut things down quickly.  You might try opening your observational statements with phrases like:

I would say. . .

I think. . .

I believe. . .

I feel. . .

I consider. . .

In my opinion. . .

It seems to me. . .

Do you know someone who speaks with exaggerated words all the time?  Do they use these words to describe something you have done?  Does it make you angry when they do?  It does most people.  It’s very irritating to be told, “You always do this. . .”  Avoid using these kinds of terms: every, everyone, always, never, only, everybody, all, as they tend to distort your meaning and throw a monkey wrench in communication.  Try using words that soften your message like: hardly ever, frequently, rarely, mostly, usually, in general, almost.

Avoid using words that command others and have a way of forcing compliance and conformity.  Especially avoid these in conjunction with the word “you”: must, have to, ought, should.

In addition to choosing effective words and sentence structures, it is SO important to make your non-verbals match up with your verbals.  Use speech volume, rate, tone, pitch and inflection; how you say what you say it is just as important as saying it.  Even more so!  Did you know that if folks get a funny feeling about the words that are falling out of your mouth, they will fall back on the non-verbals as the “proof” of what you are saying?  Make your way of speaking congruent with what you are saying.

In the midst of what is hopefully not an all-out argument, be flexible with your communication.  If you find that your messages are creating defensive and/or adversarial reactions in the other party, don’t be afraid to try another tactic.  No sense in beating a dead horse.  You want to keep the communication going and this doesn’t happen if you shut them down (and they might resort to stonewalling, sulking and end up resentful).

I read a great little rule of thumb for effective speaking:

Say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said.

This should help get your point across.  If not, it’s time to shift gears, of course.  De-escalation takes sensitivity and finesse, and inside you may feel like initiating the all-out beat-down.  Nevertheless, cleverness can get you out of tight spots in managing conflict and aggressive behavior, and any time you can do that instead of fighting, it is usually the most desirable choice.

Tiny Spaces and Angry People

Have you ever gotten agitated because someone invaded your personal space bubble?  Did you ever have an acquaintance that constantly got in your face to talk, even as you continually backed up to create distance?  I feel certain you have experience one or both of these.  We all possess personal space zones, and human beings also have a lot of rituals that they go through to maintain them.  Our space needs differ based on our culture and whether or not we were raised in a crowded city or in the country (folks from the country tend to like more space).  Here in the U.S., the general rules are:

  • Intimate Zone—18 inches and in from the front.  (for close friends, family, significant others—think emotional bond)
  • Personal Zone—30 inches to 4 feet (friends, co-workers, etc.)
  • Social Zone—4 to 12 feet away (people we don’t know very well)
  • Public Zone—12 feet and beyond (strangers, public speaking)

This, of course, does not take into account new transplants from other countries, as they tend to adhere to the cultural norms from their home country.  Hence the occasional guy or gal that hovers like a cloak in the grocery store line, because that is precisely what he or she is accustomed to!

I was once told by an instructor that our personal space is more of an oval; we seem to be more comfortable with people flanking us at closer range.  I have also read that the space we require behind us can be double of that in front.  I find it interesting that public transportation violates most, if not all of the spatial relationship “rules” in American culture (is this why we don’t embrace it as much as other countries do?)  Is this why some folks lose their ever-living minds when they travel this way?  Most of us cope with the violation through defensive displays of body language:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Folding arms and crossing legs (to close ourselves off)
  • Remaining silent
  • Immersing ourselves in reading material and/or other distractions

There is a strong correlation between over-crowding and violent crime, so it seems like a logical leap to me that some people just get more agitated while riding in a bus or plane and therefore have tremendous potential to explode at people and situations.  Then some of us unwittingly poke the bear, failing to take note of their agitation and/or defensive body language.  It seems logical to make another leap and assume that some people cope with the space violations by starting conversations, in attempt to ease the burden of someone invading their bubble.  Of course, there’s always the obvious choice that there are those among us who are just annoying jerks.  Nevertheless, I have heard many a tale over the years of bizarre behavior aboard all manner of people-movers, and I have to wonder if there are other underlying factors at work, other than insanity or being terminally ill-natured.  Either way, it is probably best not to engage them if you can help it, and don’t allow them to get you riled—there is nothing quite like LOTS of angry packed liked sardines in a tiny space.

Active Listening and Conflict Management

I have been studying communication, conflict management and resolution, and persuasion/influence.  I cannot remember the source, but I recall an interesting statistic: approximately 98 percent of all encounters in which force is used can be solved through some other means.  Now, I must say I have no idea how one quantifies that kind of thing and creates a statistic, but it still got me thinking more deeply about human conflict.  Conflict is a natural occurrence because we all have a unique lens through which we view the world as well as a unique way of operating within it.  Since “reality” is such a fluid concept based on those parameters, I suppose it would be fair to say it is a wonder we get on as well as we do with one another.  Yet I have observed those individuals who honestly profess that they endure very little conflict in their everyday lives, even though the nature of their life’s work requires them to be in constant contact with people on a weekly, even daily basis.  The question is, are they just lucky?  Do they have a distorted, rosy view of reality as some would claim?

I don’t wish to contradict myself and say that bad things don’t happen to good people.  Rotten people do prey upon good people—even skilled individuals who are doing everything right can have a run-in with slick predators.  We need to have some preparation for the worst case scenario even though the probability is small.  But I have to say that I believe the aforementioned people who claim they experience little or no conflict in their lives, and I don’t believe they live in a fantasy world.  Some folks develop mastery in dealing with others and are able to influence a lot of outcomes based on a specific mindset and certain persuasive skills (i.e. communication skills) that really set the tone for their environment.  It is as if they have this bubble, or sphere of influence that follows them wherever they go.  If you have a conversation with one of these masters and listen to the stories they have to tell, you begin to notice the key ingredient; the most important tool in their toolbox is the skill of listening.

Most of us have a belief that we are good listeners.  I would venture to say that the majority of us have the ability to be so, but probably fall short most days.  Why?  Because real listening requires work.  In a modern world full of shiny and sexy bleeding-edge technological distractions, the work of listening is even harder than it used to be.  Think about it.  Do you notice that if you actually get an opportunity to sit down and have a conversation face-to-face with people you know, you are constantly competing for their attention with incoming calls, email notifications and text messages?  In a fast-paced world characterized by factoids and sound bytes, short-attention spans and tight schedules, we probably don’t think we even have the time to devote to listening.  As James Borg (a leading expert on persuasion) explains, we also tend to confuse hearing with listening.  Hearing is a sensory activity, a physiological function.  Listening, on the other hand, is a cognitive process because it requires interpretation and understanding.  Many of us believe that talking is the most important aspect of communication, and that we are wasting time if we are not flapping our gums and getting our point across (in an effort to get things done!).  Yet, think of how many people have ruffled our feathers and made us downright furious in the course of our lives because we felt like they didn’t ever listen to what we were saying?

The elements of active listening are as follows:

Giving them time to talk: holy smokes, this is monumentally important.

Paraphrasing: recapping what the speaker has said, which lets them know you are trying to understand them.  It also gives them the opportunity to rephrase if you are not receiving the message they are laboring to send.

Asking open-ended questions: gives the speaker an opportunity to elaborate, which gives you more insight into their reasoning.  Avoid using leading questions, if you really want to get down to the meat and potatoes of what’s making them tick.

Watching and understanding body language and other non-verbal communication: over 90 percent of what we say is not with our words, no matter how carefully we choose them.  This is a science all by itself—and a fascinating one, I might add.
Most of us want to be listened to, and have confirmation that we have been understood.  Here are some barriers to listening:

Interrupting—seems like so many are just waiting for us to shut up so they can talk, though often they can’t wait long enough.

Finishing someone’s sentences—want to irritate someone?  Do this over and over.  If you finish their sentences with the wrong ending, they are most likely not going to correct you, but resent the heck out of you anyway.  And, they are left with the feeling that they are not in control of their own ideas.  Sounds like a recipe for contempt.

Talking over people—wow, this is as bad as interrupting.

When people listen to us, and make an effort to understand us, it takes the heat out of our anger.  After a while, we really don’t feel like being mad anymore.  There is nothing magical about it!  I wonder.  Are we inadvertently escalating interpersonal conflicts further than they need to go because of not taking a little extra time to listen to one another?  Don’t get me wrong–people are still responsible for their actions, even if anger turns into violent aggression, but I do wonder how true that statistic about use of force is, and how much could be abated through lending an understanding ear.