Defusing challenging behaviours in the workplace

Challenging behaviours in the workplace come in many forms, but generally occur where one individual’s actions or behaviours negatively impact another’s. Challenging behaviour may come from a peer, colleague, manager or customer, and it impacts all parties involved. If not managed correctly, it can become a workplace hazard and impact on productivity. With 37% of Australian workers admitting to being yelled or sworn at in the workplace, managers must take practical steps to protect employees from situations which may injure or harm them.

“Learning the skills to respond to emotionally charged situations is crucial for today’s managers,” explains Marcela Slepica, Clinical Services Manager at AccessEAP.

Verbal judo training is based on constructive conversations and using words to prevent, de-escalate or end an attempted verbal assault while maintaining mental and emotional safety. The best outcome involves managing emotions and using skills to ensure that the conversation progresses toward a peaceful conclusion.

Verbal judo provides information and tools to assist staff to keep psychologically and physically safe whilst working with colleagues and the public. Participants learn to assess the level of psychological risk present in any given situation by better understanding their own signs of distress so as to identify what sort of action to take. Our customers with frontline staff, particularly those in the service industry have found this training invaluable to equip staff with the skills needed to ensure their own safety.

Here are some effective strategies for defusing challenging behaviours in the workplace.


  • Recognise your own stress signature

When faced with a threat, our bodies experience a collection of responses and our brain activates a threat response even before our conscious mind can process what’s happening. This stress response reduces our capacity for logical thinking so it’s important to take a step back and assess your physical, mental, emotional and behavioural reactions in order to determine the best course of action.

Two people may experience the same situation and have different stress reactions. Being able to determine whether your reaction is normal for you, or one that suggests you are at risk is vital in deciding the next steps and ensuring your own safety. Before engaging further, ensure you are able to think clearly and calmly.

  • Respond rather than react

It is more effective to respond to a situation rather than to react to the moment. Responding allows us to control the situation, whereas reacting lets it control us. With verbal judo, it is important not to ignore or dismiss a question. Try not to justify or defend yourself, let them express their frustration and once they have finished, speak with confidence, explain, educate and win their respect. Do not argue with the other person as this escalates their emotions.

Avoid statements such as “You wouldn’t understand,” “It’s none of your business,” or “Be reasonable.” Use empathy to absorb tension and instead try statements like, “Let me be sure I understand you correctly.” Your interest allows them to calm down and they will be open to listening because they have been heard. If the situation continues to present a risk, you must withdraw to guarantee your own safety, “I will end this conversation if you continue to yell at me.”

  • Debriefing & self-care

If you experience an incident of challenging behaviour in the workplace, you should seek immediate support from a manager. For less serious incidents, a team discussion and debrief, peer support or other self-care strategies may be sufficient. For serious incidents, trauma support from an EAP or counselling may be required to help process what has happened.

When challenging behaviours occur, the most important thing to remember is to maintain the personal safety of employees.

AccessEAP is a leading Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider in Australia, assisting companies across Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia since 1989 in supporting a mentally healthy workplace. As an Australian owned not-for-profit provider, surplus profits are directed into programs to assist children at risk in the community through direct donation and via The Curran Access Children’s Foundation. To learn more about verbal judo strategies or to organise a training session tailored to your organisation and industry, visit



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