Helping people can sometimes be a dangerous job. People seeking help are sometimes desperate people, people with mental illnesses that affect their judgment, people with criminal backgrounds, or people with addictions. Depending on circumstances, these folks can put the people who help them at risk. Here are some things to keep in mind to stay safe when helping others.
Emergency (Photo credits: www.smartsign.com)
Remember that every single human being is a “dangerous person”. There are predictors of violence, the most significant being past history of violence and current crisis, but there is no 100% reliable way of knowing who is dangerous to you right now. Assume that even people you know well have the capacity for violence in general and the capacity to be violent against you in particular.
- Use relationship to build safety. Even in the most difficult of situations, it is possible to show consideration and kindness. Ask how the person is doing. Practice until you sound like you really mean it (preferably by really meaning it). Listen and allow the person to voice their opinion, and do not negate their opinion with your response. If you disagree, say so, but in such a way that gives them room. Good examples include “That’s not the way I see it, but I can see why you would think that.
- Know your exit strategy. If you regularly work with people in your office with the door shut for confidential reasons, ideally you should have a panic button. If you don’t, make sure that you arrange your desk and chair so that your client is never between you and the exit. If that is not possible, then make sure that you have a colleague that remains within listening distance of your office who is prepared to step in should there be trouble. Always keep a cell phone on your person.
- Evaluate your surroundings for potential weapons. Anything small enough to pick up and big or sharp or pointed enough to do damage is a potential weapon. This includes pencils, glass tumblers, coffee mugs, desk fans, chairs, shoes, hairbrushes, framed pictures – nearly anything. If you control the space (it is your office, for example) try to control these hazards to the extent possible (put staplers and three hole punches in your drawer, for example). If you don’t control the space, simply be aware and ready to act if need be.
- Be aware of body language and personal space. Face to face contact can be unintentionally confrontational. If you have any worries about a person being volatile, it is better to sit next to rather than across from the individual. Also be aware that different cultures, genders and situations have different personal space requirements. What might be a comfortable distance for you may be uncomfortably close to the person you’re helping. Be aware of and respond to any cues that you are “invading space.”
- Beware intoxication. If the person you are helping is intoxicated, reschedule the appointment. This is especially important if, as part of the helping relationship, you transport the person or enter the person’s home. Intoxicated people are far more likely than sober people to become aggressive, and to ramp that aggression up. If you ask the person politely to leave your place of business and he won’t leave, call in backup, or the police.
- Know the difference between ‘venting’ and verbal aggression. Sometimes, as part of the helping role, you may provide time and space for a person to yell and curse and cry, allowing him to vent his feelings. This is entirely appropriate. However, if at any time the person turns the emotion on you and crosses the line from expressing emotion to verbal abuse, it is time to stop him immediately, asking for help if you need it. It is not a part of your job to be verbally abused.
- When making a community visit, always be aware of your surroundings. If at any time you encounter an unsafe situation in the immediate vicinity of the person you’re helping’s home, call from your cellphone to let her know about your concerns and reschedule or ask her to meet you elsewhere. If you come to her door and you have reason to believe that other people are in the house that aren’t visible, don’t go in the house unless these people are known to you and supposed to be present.
- Transport safely: When transporting a person, ask politely if he can place his belongings in the trunk while you transport him. If at any time while transporting a person he makes you feel unsafe, pull over and ask him to leave your car as soon as it is safe to do so. Set your cellphone to be able to call Emergency with one button while transporting.
- Finally, trust your gut. Human ‘instincts’ are actually an evaluation of multiple subtle clues that individually can be hard to identify. If you feel unsafe, it is likely that you are. Get out of the situation as quickly and gracefully as you can.