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Workplace violence: Don’t risk it, de-escalate it

By: Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN

Know the warning signs and stay calm.


Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN Executive Editor, Professional Outreach American Nurse Today

WHETHER you’re a certified nursing assistant, licensed practical nurse, registered nurse, or nurse practitioner, you’ll likely deal with patients who are feeling pain, have lost their independence, or are experiencing stress and anxiety—and they will sometimes lose control of their emotions. These angry and upset patients or family members can test your compassion, communication skills, and patience. They even may resort to violence.

Workplace violence is a serious and growing threat. And it’s not confined to patients and families; it also may include your co- workers. When faced with threats of violence from a subordinate, co-worker, patient, or visitor, the first order of business is to consciously calm yourself before interacting with the person. If you’re upset, it’s only going to escalate the situation. Calm down and begin to look at the situation and how you can intervene safely. Take a deep breath.

Then, what do you do? The short answer is:

  1. Give them space. Stand 2 to 3 feet away if possible.
  2. Monitor your voice tone. Keep it measured and calm.
  3. Know how to retreat. Have a planned escape route.

These techniques may help, but how do you know, unless it’s patently obvious, that you are—or may be—facing violence? Warning signs of potential violence from patients, families, or coworkers include:

  • intimidating, harassing, bullying, or other belligerent and aggressive behavior
  • numerous conflicts with patients, families, coworkers, or supervisors
  • comments that indicate approval of using violence to resolve a problem
  • comments that indicate desperation over family, finances, or other personal problems
  • inappropriate references to guns or idle threats about using a weapon to harm someone and, of course, bringing a weapon to the workplace.


Conflict de-escalation techniques | Vivid Learning Systems | vividlearningsystems.com/safety-toolbox/conflict-de-escalation-techniques

De-escalating aggressive patient behavior: Tips and strategies | MedPro Group | medpro.com/deescalating-aggressive-behavior

De-escalation techniques: Coping with students & clients, coping with our lives | The etr blog | etr.org/blog/deescalation-techniques-coping-with-students-clients-coping-with-our-lives

De-escalation techniques | CPI | crisisprevention.com/Blog/June-2011/

De-escalation-Techniques 8 tips for de-escalating conflict | The Balance Careers | thebalancecareers.com/de-escalating-conflict-1986786

How do I deal with an angry family member? | Scrubs | scrubsmag.com/how-to-deal-with-an-angry-patient

How to deal with the angry patient | MedPage Today | medpagetoday.com/blogs/kevinmd/67754

Verbal de-escalation for clinical practice safety | American Nurse Today | myamericannurse.com/verbal-de-escalation-safety

Don’t risk it, de-escalate it

If you’re ever concerned that a situation may turn violent, immediately alert your supervisor and follow your organization’s reporting procedures. Then, start de-escalation techniques:

  • Don’t avoid the conflict. Be quiet, don’t interrupt, and be attentive.
  • Remain calm. When dealing with difficult patients, the best approach is to stay calm.
  • Avoid being defensive. Listen to what the person is trying to tell you.
  • Engage in conversation.
  • Don’t play the blame game. Work to see both sides and reflect the feelings the person is saying or displaying. • Avoid overgeneralizations. Repeat the content of the person’s message.
  • Avoid the need to be right. Help the person clarify his or her request.
  • Be empathetic. This is the quickest way to calm an angry or difficult patient.
  • Align yourself with the person. For example, you might share times that you too have felt wronged.
  • Avoid arguing. Be sincere, but don’t contradict the person.
  • Don’t stonewall but set boundaries. Allow the person to release his or her frustration.
  • Don’t attack someone’s character. Let the person know that you understand the complaint.
  • If the person threatens violence, very slowly back away toward a door to a corridor.

If you haven’t attended a training session on how to de-escalate violence, do so soon.

leah curtin registered nurse faan

Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN
Executive Editor, Professional Outreach
American Nurse Today



1 Comment.

  • Anika Johnson
    June 5, 2019 7:42 pm

    While I appreciate and agree with the techniques and advice provided in this article, I am waiting to see where patients are educated that nurses are not punching bags or scapegoats. Other public facilities such as social service offices post signs warning that threats of violence and disrespect will not be tolerated. Public schools have a zero tolerance policy and expect children whose brains lack the capacity to control emotions to strictly adhere to their policies. I believe the average nurse is quite patient and tolerant of less than ideal behavior behavior, after all we are educated to deal with the human response to illness, including psychosocial and emotional distress. Effective security needs to be reinforced.

Comments are closed.

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