• A coworker or superior’s display of aggression in the workplace can feel threatening and uncomfortable; fortunately, you can follow a few steps to handle this situation properly.
  • First, consider whether you feel unsafe—if you do feel unsafe, you should talk with human resources about the event and how it made you feel.
  • If you don’t feel unsafe, take some time to yourself to process the event as well as your feelings related to the event and the aggressor.
  • Next, debrief: this means sitting down with the aggressive coworker or superior, discussing the event, and setting a plan in motion that will prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
  • Finally, if the situation is serious or you don’t feel uncomfortable in your workplace, consider making a job change.

An aggressive display can make anybody nervous—especially when it’s at their place of work. This is one of the last places you want to deal with an aggressive or threatening encounter. But the truth of the matter is sometimes our coworkers or even our superiors act aggressively and make us feel uncomfortable. So, what do we do when we witness aggression at work? Licensed Professional Counselor and owner of Flourish Psychotherapy Laurie Sharp-Page gives a detailed formula:

1. Identify whether you feel unsafe.

First, consider your safety: is it a heightened situation that makes you feel unsafe? If so, you should have a meeting with human resources. “When encountering any situation where you feel someone is being aggressive, the first step is to identify whether or not you felt unsafe in the situation. Unsafe is a personal experience and feeling; therefore, you and someone else could experience the same incident and only you feel unsafe. As such, trust your gut,” Sharp-Page explains. “If you feel unsafe (even if others didn’t) contact your HR department or the appropriate party to express your concerns. You have a right to feel safe at work, and not speaking up about feeling unsafe can make you feel more unsafe in the long-term.”

2. Take some time and space.

If, on the other hand, you don’t feel unsafe, then simply take some time to process the event before you confront the aggressor. “If someone is aggressive with us, it can trigger a defensive response that results in us getting escalated as well. This helps no one in the moment, it just further escalates the situation, so the best thing you can do in the moment is remove yourself,” Sharp-Page explains. “It can help to process your feelings and concerns about the situation verbally; however, be mindful who you are doing that with. Processing with colleagues creates the opportunity for increased tension and further conflict, processing with someone external (if possible) can be less disruptive. Additionally, writing down your experience and your feelings can help you process them in an effective manner, as well as make a written outline for what happened when and if you report it.”

3. Debrief.

Now it’s time to do the confronting—though you shouldn’t take an aggressive stance. Try being more assertive instead, explaining how their aggression made you feel: “If possible, debriefing about the conflict is very helpful. Debriefing includes you sitting down with the other person and exploring what happened after the fact, as a means to develop a plan for future conflicts so that they do not escalate in the same manner,” says Sharp-Page. “Conflict will happen, so make the expectation that it will happen again, but express your boundaries and expectations for how you are treated in a professional setting clear. Ideally, you will have a third party with you, as a means to help you process, communication, compromise, and document the plan moving forward.”

4. Consider a job change.

Finally, if the coworker or superior continues to act aggressively, or if you think it best you don’t work with the aggressor, explore the possibility of finding a new job. “In some cases when aggressive conflict is ongoing, or conflict feels unsafe, only you can decide if and when the right choice for you is to leave your job,” says Sharp-Page. “The reality is that some work environments are toxic, and you have a right to choose whether or not an environment is healthy for you. Ultimately this comes down to a cost/benefit analysis, if you are starting to feel like the benefits of your job are not equal to the emotional costs of working in the environment, then it is probably time to start looking for a new opportunity.”