Self Defense: It’s More Than Just Physical Confrontation

Training staff respectful communication skills, de-escalation tactics, how to control violent individuals and the laws relating to physical restraints will help to protect employees and improve their morale.

Often, when we hear the term “self-defense,” we think of some sort of physical confrontation in which an innocent person must defend themselves against an attacker. In reality, it is so much more than that.

We all know that law enforcement officials are taught self-defense. They often face difficult situations and must be proactive in making arrests or protecting others. In some organizations, safety and security staff may also receive similar training. But what about those who work in an environment where agitation, aggression and assault are known to be anything but rare, yet teaching self-defense is seen as contrary to the organization’s mission statement or overall philosophy? This would include healthcare staff and those working in K-12 and college education. 

Workplace violence, including assault, seems to be under studied and certainly under reported. Regardless of the statistics, many educators and healthcare workers will admit they feel increasingly less respected, and at times, fear assault from those they serve.  

So can we reach an appropriate balance between mission statements and employee protection? The answer is, absolutely! First, we must overcome the stigma associated with self-defense. Once we recognize the broader message associated with the concept and then instruct our staff accordingly, we’ll go a long way in breaking down those barriers.

Let’s look at six concepts that encompass the theory of self-defense:

1. Interpersonal Communication. 

This is where self-defense starts. Proper and effective communication is important in all settings, but especially those in which verbal and/or physical confrontation is more prevalent. Take a moment to think of someone you would consider a good communicator. They are not overly passive or aggressive in nature. They are considerate of others and their differences, whether it be cultural, gender or socio-economic. They exhibit empathy and compassion. They use non-verbal skills appropriately by ensuring their body language and speech match (we may be deceptive with our speech, but our body language will often tell on us). They seek to understand those with whom they interact through the proper use of proactive listening. They seek to understand and overcome common barriers to good communication.

People will often admit that their own attitude is to blame for many instances of conflict. Time and performance pressures can cause us to hurry through our day without taking the time to properly engage others. Self-defense often begins here.

2. Recognizing and Diffusing Conflict and Aggression

Unfortunately, conflict is not a rare occurrence in a healthcare setting, especially for those employed in pre-hospital services, emergency departments, intensive care and mental health units. Nor is it rare for school administrators who often deal with angry parents and students. One of the most effective methods in avoiding and/or minimizing conflict is to recognize its potential at its earliest stages. When we detect potential conflict, we can begin using skills and techniques to diffuse it. Training in this area affords the opportunity of understanding the various stages of conflict and how to effectively manage it. It also encourages taking pro-active steps in dealing with conflict before it escalates. This is an excellent opportunity for role play using common objections often heard by your staff. An empathetic response to a complaint followed by a reasonable and compassionate explanation can go a long way in resolving conflict. 

3. Safety Awareness

Whether in a patient’s room, the classroom or in someone’s home, staff members obviously play an important role in their own personal safety. Many of them understand this; however, they are looking for education and guidance on what that looks like and with steps they can use to ensure success. For instance, one topic that should be covered is how to maintain proper distance from an agitated person, as well as ways to avoid becoming trapped in a room with no avenue of escape. 

Additionally, staff should understand what physiological responses their body may experience due to fear and ways in which they can minimize those by maintaining a healthy level of awareness while on the job. When we properly educate our staff on how to deal with verbal and physical threats, we take away some level of fear they possess. This is one more way we can create a healthy and satisfied workforce.

4. Legal/Policy Concerns

Recently, a healthcare worker inside an emergency department was choked “nearly to death” as they put it. The employee did not fight back as she was taken to the ground.  Her reason? She was unsure what she could do and feared she might be fired if she fought back. What a disservice to her and those with whom she works. Fortunately, this person’s employer is taking steps to ensure their staff are properly educated on the law, policy and defensive measures so that events like this may be properly mitigated in the future. 


De-escalation, Features, Self Defense, Verbal Threats

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