Managing unpredictable behaviour

With normal everyday behaviour, we can predict a great deal. We say ‘hello’ and we expect someone to say ‘hello’ back. There are many social conventions that all ‘normally’ behaving people comply with: if I enter a waiting room in which you are already sitting, unless I know you I will sit with at least one empty chair between us; if we are strangers, then I don’t expect you to come up and hug me; etc.

Being able to predict gives us a certain measure of control over situations; if we have a fair idea of what is going to happen, then we feel more in control. Herein lies our problem with unpredictable behaviour: we don’t feel in control. How can we negotiate with someone if we can’t get inside their head? Thus we become embarrassed, or uncomfortable, or unhappy, and ultimately we feel threatened.

If you anticipate that you are likely to meet unpredictable behaviour, then you should certainly be taking whatever precautions you can – as a matter of policy, as often as possible. Thus it should be only in the most exceptional circumstances that staff should be untraceable and unsupportable to the extent that no one knows where they are, when they are likely to return, and what to do if they don’t.

Although we know we should not stereotype, we would be foolish if we did not learn the lesson of previous experience with a customer, a family, a neighbourhood or a block of flats. Never ignore any customer’s history of upsetting or dangerous behaviour on the grounds that it was a long time ago or that they have promised to turn over a new leaf.

When you become aware that someone is behaving unpredictably, think ‘defensively’, i.e. think more about yourself and your safety than the job that you are supposed to be doing at the time; go on full alert immediately. If you are wrong or if things settle back to normal, you can then relax and give more attention to the job in hand.

Trust your intuition; it may be the only warning you’ll get that something is not quite as it should be. It is certainly difficult to justify your concerns to a superior on the basis of intuition and we can be left feeling somewhat exposed to criticism as we try to explain that we did what we did because of a ‘feeling’. Despite this difficulty, our intuition should be trusted.

If ever there was a time to keep your distance, this is it. Be attentive, but stay out of harm’s reach until you are sure the situation is safe.

Be sure you are aware of where the exit is, and that you have as easy access to it as possible. Give some thought, prior to any incident occurring, to any alternative exit, e.g. could a receptionist escape to somewhere within the reception office by climbing over the reception counter? Try it.

Don’t become too absorbed in your job. It may be important that you keep one eye on where people are, what they are doing, what potential weapons are about, etc. Hence the advantage of a colleague’s company: he or she can be monitoring the safety aspects while you can be getting on with the job, or vice versa.

Eamonn Dennis