A Few Notes on Violent Behavior

by Jul 21, 2012

This weekend I was working on a training for dealing with bullying students, and was asked that part of the training include information about how to monitor the bully’s communication in order to predict if it will turn violent.

I was shocked to find there isn’t much “out there” on the internet about the topic of nonverbal communication as a predictor of violence, so thought I’d attempt to rectify that with my own blog post about it.

Violent behavior occurs with the intersection of four factors:

Personality: The individual’s interpersonal functioning, or the way the student views the world, will determine if violence is the outcome of a stressful situation. Violent-prone individuals subscribe to control and blame instead of understanding and taking responsibility. Right and wrong is determined by what they can get away with instead of what makes them feel guilty. Cultural background and past experiences have led to an acceptability of violence.

Stress: Because violent-prone idividuals do not understand their misfortunes or frustrations, and instead passionately blame others, they are struck by an overwhelming sense of desparation and increasing sense of powerlessness. Violence is a way to get back power.

Setting: Effective violence prevention depends on the ability of the setting to recognize warning signs and mediate the effect of stress on individuals. In other words, violence cannot occur unless it is allowed to occur. This training is a step towards adjusting the setting.

Lacking communication skills: Violence is often a result of an inability to express oneself successfully. When a person feels like they cannot get their point across, or they are not being understood, they become frustrated and lash out in order to gain control of the situation.

Predicting Violent Behavior with Nonverbal Cues

60-90% of our communication is nonverbal, and most of the time we pay attention to it subconsciously. While it is impossible to predict with absolute certainty when someone will become violent, you can learn a lot from a person’s body language if you consciously pay close attention.


Nonverbal cues that indicate someone may become violent in the next few minutes include:
• Never ceasing eye contact; staring, never looking away or at another part of your body

• Clenched teeth, narrowing of eyes, and tense lips

• Arms crossed on the chest, closed fists, or arms held back slightly as if they are winding up for a swing. Also, hands held tightly against the chest could indicate defensiveness or holding a weapon.

• A shifting of weight to the back leg like a fighter ready to take a swing

• Inability to sit down, appearing anxious

• Rapid breathing and a loud, raised voice

Violence may also occur when the individual is told “no”, is given orders instead of options, or feels like he or she is not being understood. Knowing this, it is important to construct your own messages as collaborative, positive and opportunistic, rather than negative and limiting.

Preventing Violence at Work

In order to ensure an employee never turns violent, the organization must take steps to keep aggression to a minimum. Everyone should be trained and active in recognizing warning signs, and procedures must be in place to address those signs when discovered. One way to do this is to form a crisis prevention team of organizational leaders who will work with an employee who seems violent-prone. The team may be responsible for mediation, communication skills coaching, or working with the employee to relieve stress somehow. The team could also construct an action plan for building a positive culture, facilitate the construction of effective problem solving at work, introduce training programs to the workplace, and the like.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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