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Anyone who has played the classic board game Clue is familiar with the phrase "Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with a wrench." But "Mr. Jones in the photocopy room with a stapler" has a more ominous meaning — especially if it's used to describe a confrontation between co-workers that's turned ugly.
Ideally, the workplace is supposed to foster teamwork and productivity. The worst-case scenario sees conflicts among colleagues transform the office into a veritable viper pit of resentment, ill-will and, occasionally, aggressive confrontation.
According to Pierre Barbarie, assistant manager, security services, the key to dealing with a hostile person is knowledge. And he should know — for almost three years now, Barbarie has led workshops teaching McGill staff how to defuse potentially dangerous situations using non-violent means. "I hope people won't need to use what we show them, but at least they are equipped should the situation arise," he says.
The six-hour course is most popular among frontline staff like people from payroll and the registrar's office. Late paycheques or missing transcripts can be the flashpoint that sparks a confrontation. "Maybe someone has bills to pay or mouths to feed or a deadline to apply to graduate school," says Barbarie. "Smaller things have set people off."
Vigilance is key to maintaining peace, as is being aware of the signals being sent out by the other person. "Anxious people often rub their hands or swallow a lot," says Barbarie. "This doesn't mean the person is going to lose it, but it should signal you to be on your toes." As well, being sensitive to the way a person says something — tone, cadence and volume are all telltale signs — can help flag a situation in the making.
Should one be confronted by an aggressive person, the best course of action is to try to de-escalate things as soon as possible. Being mindful of your own tone and volume will keep you from matching that of the aggressor — often the most common cause of a full-fledged screaming match. But Barbarie also warns against being too passive in the face of an irate person. "If you just roll over, they will take over the situation. You've got to get their attention," he says. "One of the best strategies is to tell him — firmly, but calmly — that you'd like to try and help him but that you'll be unable to do so if he continues behaving in an inappropriate manner."
In the unfortunate event that a confrontation becomes physical, Barbarie spends the afternoon portion of the workshop teaching physical techniques. He's quick to point out that this isn't a kung fu class. "The techniques I teach are really basic, but they are extremely effective at getting you out of a bad situation," he says.
Finally, Barbarie counsels people who are meeting with someone with a bit of a history to take no chances. "Remove objects that could be used as a weapon, know where your exits are, keep your door open and ask a co-worker to check in on you."
The next Non-Violent Crisis Intervention workshops will be held on November 1 and 2. To register or for more information go to www.mcgill.ca/hr/staffdevelopment/courses.