in: People, Social Skills

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #230: How to Deal With Aggressive People

I’ve had guests on the show to talk about how to defend yourself from violent attacks, but what can you do to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations so things don’t come to fist blows? How do you deal with people who get in your face and act in verbally belligerent ways? My guest today has spent his career studying the psychology of aggressive people and how to handle them. His name is Shawn Smith, and he’s a psychologist, and the author of the book Surviving Aggressive People: Practical Violence Prevention Skills for the Workplace and the Street. Today on the show, Shawn and I discuss why you need to worry more about aggressive attacks from people you know rather than from strangers, the difference between desperate aggression and expert aggression, and tactics you can use to prevent tense social situations from escalating to violence.

Show Highlights

  • How Shawn first learned about the psychology of aggression at his dad’s bar
  • Where you’re most likely to encounter aggressive people
  • Why many people today don’t know how to handle aggressive people
  • The two types of aggression: desperate and expert
  • The signs of desperate aggression
  • The signs you’re dealing with an expert aggressor
  • The 5 ground rules of dealing with aggressive people
  • How to develop your intuition
  • How to use the “Listen, Empathize, and Options” (LEO) method with desperate aggressive people
  • What to do if LEO doesn’t work
  • How to nip the boundary testing of expert aggressors in the bud
  • How to look less like a victim
  • How to deal with aggression in the online world
  • How to deal with aggression caused by neurobehavioral problems like brain injury, PTSD, or autism

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

Surviving Aggressive People by Shawn T. Smith, book cover.

Surviving Aggressive People is filled with actionable advice on how to handle conflict so that it doesn’t escalate. If you deal with people who can get aggressive on a regular basis, I highly recommend picking up a copy on Amazon.

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Connect With Shawn

Shawn’s website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. I’ve had guests on the show to talk about how to defend yourself from violent attacks, but what can you do to de-escalate what are potentially violent confrontations so things don’t come to fist blows? How do you deal with people who get in your face and act in verbally belligerent ways? My guest today has spent his career studying the psychology of aggressive people and how to handle them. His name is Shawn Smith, and he’s a psychologist, and the author of the book Surviving Aggressive People: Practical Violence Prevention Skills for the Workplace and the Street. Today on the show, Shawn and I discuss why you need to worry more about aggressive attacks from people you know rather than from strangers, the difference between desperate aggression and expert aggression, and tactics you can use to prevent tense social situations from escalating to violence.

Really great show with a lot of practical takeaways. After the show, check out the show notes at for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Shawn Smith, welcome to the show.

Shawn Smith: Well, thank you for having me. I’m a big fan of your site and what you do.

Brett McKay: I appreciate that. You’re the author of the book Surviving Aggressive People, and we’re going to get into details of how to do that, what that means. Before we do, let’s talk a bit about your background. You’re a psychologist with a private practice now, but you’ve also done work in detox centers and places where you probably dealt with a lot of aggressive people. How did your work there influence your ideas about how to handle people when they start showing aggression?

Shawn Smith: All the way through this, in developing and writing this book, I was looking for some kind of organized way of thinking about handling aggression, and long before I ever got to the detox centers and the residential treatment facilities and so forth, my father, when I was a kid, I was 9 years old, he bought a bar, in Commerce City, Colorado, which is an industrial area north of Denver. I got to watch my dad, who was a little rough around the edges, but he was a brilliant street psychologist. He knew how to handle people. He knew what motivated people and how to calm people down, and how to make situations resolve peacefully. Watching him do this, when I spent my nights and weekends at that bar, really got me curious about people and how they work and how he was doing what he was doing, because it seemed like a super power to me, to be able to manage people.

As I grew older, I started looking for an organized way to think about aggression and how to de-escalate people, and there just wasn’t much out there. I went into martial arts, and there’s a lot of great psychology there, and a lot of great tidbits and information, but no real organized way of thinking about de-escalating people. I went to college, and same thing. A lot of great information, but no organized way of thinking about it. Really, an answer to your question, before I got to the detox facilities and so forth, about the time that I was getting frustrated and searching, trying to find people who knew how to do this, a bunch of businesses in Denver got together and invited the Guardian Angels to come to Denver to clean up the streets so that their businesses could do a little better. Denver wasn’t the thriving area that it is now back then.

When I heard that they were coming to town, I started looking into them, and I learned that this was a group of people who will intervene when they see a problem, but they don’t carry weapons. They don’t beat people up. They relied on their wits, and their skills, and their radios that they carried. I thought maybe this would be a group of people who had some systematic way of thinking about de-escalating people, and it turned out that I met a lot of, like my father, brilliant street psychologists who knew how to do this. That kind of got me on the path of organizing this information, so really all this information in the book, I know nothing. I’m just giving you what smarter people than me have taught me.

Brett McKay: Let’s get into details of handling aggressive people. Where are most folks going to encounter aggressive people, and why is this such a vital skill to have? Even if you live in a relatively safe place like an affluent suburb, or a middle class area of town.

Shawn Smith: You’ve heard that you’re likeliest to have a car accident within a few miles of your house. Most of us heard that statistic thrown around, and it makes sense. I live in Denver, so that’s where I spend my time, and I spend most of my time around my house, around my business, so of course that’s where I’m going to have that accident. The chances of me having a fender bender today in Tulsa are slim to none, because I’m not there. The same kind of reasoning applies to learning how to manage aggressive people. The people around you, those are the people that you see every day. Those are the people that you could potentially have a problem with. The crime statistics from the Department of Justice from 2012, a pretty recent statistic, 73% of violent crimes are committed by somebody that the victim knows. That’s why it’s important to know how to handle folks.

Brett McKay: I mean, this is not just like family members or friends. It could be at the job, is a place where a lot of aggression takes place. Disgruntled employees, or disgruntled clients.

Shawn Smith: Exactly. Most of the feedback I get on this book … You know, I’ve written other books, and they get Amazon reviews and so forth, but I get a lot of personal feedback on this book. The personal feedback that I get is people not saying that they thwarted a mugging or that they saved a burning school bus full of children. It’s that they calmed down a client, or they calmed down their boss, and they handled some sort of mundane incident well because they learned how aggression works, and they learned how to head it off quickly.

Brett McKay: I think maybe this is a skill that has sort of degraded in people, since our interactions with other people are very transactional. You just sort of, I don’t know, you don’t deal with people as people anymore. I think maybe we’ve lost that skill. That street smart that your dad had.

Shawn Smith: Yeah, I think one of the things that we’ve lost in recent years is, I walk around downtown, and I see people walking around staring into their cell phones, and listening to their ear buds and so forth, and they’re very tuned out to the environment. It’s a good way to get hit by a bus, but more than that, I’ve noticed more recently, and I don’t know if it’s happening more recently or if I’m just noticing it more recently, that I can go to a party, or I can have an interaction with somebody and talk to somebody for 10 or 15 minutes. I can walk away knowing quite a bit about that person, and realizing that sometimes they don’t even know my name, because they haven’t bothered to find out about the person that they’re talking about.

I think that that’s kind of an unwise way to go through life, because if you’re walking down the street staring into your cell phone, obviously you’re opening yourself up to dangers, and you’re not going to see things coming, but if you’re operating that way socially, and you’re not taking the temperature of the room that you’re in, you’re not taking the psychological temper of the street that you’re walking down, you’re not paying attention to the people around you, that’s kind of the social equivalent of walking around with blinders on. It strikes me as unnecessary and really nothing to gain, but potentially a lot to lose.

Brett McKay: You classify aggression into 2 types. There’s desperate aggression, and expert aggression. What are the differences between the 2 types?

Shawn Smith: This is one of the first things that I learned from folks, is that I learned to think about aggression in terms of, “What is it trying to accomplish?” These 2 broad categories of behavior, they really haven’t let me down. They seem to be pretty steady. What I’m calling desperate aggression is really somebody who’s trying to solve a problem, and they’re running out of options, and so they’re getting cornered, they’re getting upset, they’re getting worked up, and their mind is slowly closing down and turning more to the emotional side of the mind, rather than the rational side of the mind. Whereas what I’m calling expert aggression, you could just call that predatory behavior. This is somebody who’s using aggression for profit, basically.

Brett McKay: Expert aggression would be something like a con man, or a bully, or something like that.

Shawn Smith: Exactly. Somebody who’s trying to gain socially. Somebody who’s trying to gain materially.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about these 2 types of aggression in detail. What are the signs that a desperate aggressive person gives off, and can you walk us through a scenario of desperate aggression in action?

Shawn Smith: Yeah. I saw one just the other day, and it turned out well, so I’ll put this out there as a good scenario, because it turned out okay. When somebody’s becoming desperate, you probably … Another thing I say earlier in the book is that there’s really nothing in this book that you don’t already know. You just need to put some words to it. You could probably guess that when somebody’s becoming desperate, they’re going to show signs of distress. They’re going to show physical agitation. Their voice is going to change. Their posture is going to change. Their movements are going to change. The things that they’re talking about are going to change and narrow. Sometimes, people go in an opposite direction. They don’t become more expansive and more agitated. Sometimes people become more subdued, and more cornered, and more quiet until they lash out. Again, things that probably we all know, and these are the things that characterize somebody who’s losing a sense of control. They feel like they have a problem to solve. They’re feeling frightened and scared, and so they get that adrenal response.

The scenario that I saw just last week, was I went to a Chinese restaurant by my house. It’s one of my favorite places. One of the waitresses there was getting kind of harassed by a customer, and it had to do with soup, and I’ll spare you the details. He was pushing her into a corner about soup, and what was happening is, the reason this is a brilliant showcase, is because this took place over probably … It seemed like a long time, but it was probably about 45 to 60 seconds. During that 45 to 60 seconds, I could see her systematically closing off her options. He was saying that he wanted something. She would propose a solution. He would meet that solution with rejection, and he was pretty rude about it. Each time he did that, you could see her physically becoming more agitated. She was starting to become loud. She was starting to act like somebody who felt like she was trying to solve a problem, and she just had no options, and everything she was doing, she was caught between her boss, who wanted one thing, and the customer who wanted something else. She didn’t know which way to go.

Finally, she just threw her hands up and walked away, which was the right thing to do, but I loved that it was such a clear demonstration of him systematically closing down her options, and her systematically becoming more emotionally driven.

Brett McKay: The mammal, or the human part of her, the pre-frontal cortex started shutting down, and she started going back to that sort of mammalian brain. Reptile brain.

Shawn Smith: Yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about expert aggression. How do you know you’re dealing with an expert aggressor, and what’s the difference between the signs they give off from a person who’s showing desperate aggression?

Shawn Smith: This is one of my favorite topics. I was bullied horribly as a kid, which was one of the reasons I idealized my father, because I saw him handling bullies, and it changed my world to know that somebody could actually handle bullies and have things turn out peacefully. I love the topic of predatory behavior, expert aggression. I think the easiest way to think about the way people behave when they’re being predatory is to look at the way animals behave when they’re being predatory. Again, this is nothing that we don’t already know. We could all sit down and describe the way a big cat on the Savannah approaches a herd. There’s 2 things that that predator has to account for. Number 1, it can’t expend too much energy, because the energy is expensive. If that animal wastes its energy trying to take down one animal, and it chose poorly, it might not have enough energy to take down the next animal, launch another attack. It has to be very mindful of energy, which means, number 2, it has to pick the target very carefully.

That’s why we don’t see lions jumping out of trees, shouting, “Geronimo,” on the way down with a knife in their teeth, because they could get hurt and it’s expensive to scare everybody and it would just be chaos. What they do, is they approach things very methodically. You see the cat circling the herd, sizing up the herd, looking for the one that’s going to be a good target. It’s all very methodical, all very logical, and humans do the same thing. Since we’re verbal creatures, we have all of these rituals that we follow that are more complex, but it’s basically the same thing as the ritual of circling the herd. We use verbal distractions to kind of test and poke, and prod. We will test boundaries, and see if we can get past a little boundary. Then, we learn a little more about the target when we breach a boundary.

If you want a scenario, there’s one in the book. There’s a lady here in Denver named Christina who was assaulted one time, and she tells her story because she wants other people to know how this stuff works, and how to avoid it. Her story is that she was working in an office building. She had a man coming around the office building that she’d seen a couple of times. He looked like he sort of belonged there, sort of not. He kind of had the right clothes to be working around the building, but kind of not. One day, she was leaving the office a little bit later than she usually does, and this guy was there. He insisted on giving her a ride to this party, or this picnic, that he knew she was going to be going to.

The way he approached her was to act like her savior. He was going to give her a ride. He knew that she was headed up to the mountains, and so he talked about heading up to the mountains where this picnic was going to be. He insisted that she didn’t want to be on the highway by herself, and she had this little voice in her head, as this conversation was unfolding, that, “I really shouldn’t be trusting this guy,” but she ignored that voice. Every time she ignored that voice and he breached a little boundary, like for instance getting her closer to his car, he knew that he was succeeding and he got a little better at getting her to the next step. Eventually, he got her in her car, and took her up to the mountains and assaulted her, and it turned out kind of poorly. The good thing that she tries to bring out of this is the lesson of listening to your intuition and understanding how predators circle in. With those narrowing circles, they try to breach those little boundaries.

Brett McKay: What the expert aggressor does is they test boundaries, get your trust, and see if they can cross those boundaries. Once they see they can cross boundaries, they’ll actually go in for the big time kill, I guess you can say.

Shawn Smith: Yeah. A lot do. It can unfold very quickly. That one happened to unfold pretty slowly, but it doesn’t take very long for a lot of these things to occur. For example, one scenario in the book is about a guy who was closing down, in his small Midwestern town, he was closing down the convenience store that he worked at for the night. Somebody showed up at his door. “Oh, I was just asking for a glass of water. I need a glass of water. Can I please have a glass of water? I’ve been walking all night, and that’s all I want, I promise. All I need is a glass of water.” This short conversation about water, and so finally, he unlocks the door that he had had locked. This guy comes in and robs him. The whole thing probably didn’t take very long, but it was that initial breaching of the boundary was even having the conversation with the guy.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about 5 ground rules of dealing with aggressive people that you talk about in your book. What are these 5 ground rules, and do they change whether you’re dealing with a desperate aggressor, or expert aggressor?

Shawn Smith: They really don’t. What I noticed in these 2 very different ways of using aggression, there are some ground rules, some ways of carrying yourself through the world, is really what the ground rules are, is, “How do you present yourself in the world?” They really don’t change depending on what kind of aggressor you’re dealing with, but for different reasons. The first one, for example, is establishing common ground. That’s one of the most important things you can do, and this is what I was talking about and I was sort of complaining about earlier, when I was talking about people not getting to know each other. Establishing common ground means, creating some commonality with the people around you. It can be as simple as saying “hello” to somebody, and making some eye contact as you’re going down the street, particularly people that you’re a little bit worried about. Make the eye contact, say hello, be confident, carry yourself well, but also create some connection between you two.

One of my teachers in this regard was a cop who worked in Denver, here, and he would sometimes work the intake counter at one of the local jails. One of his techniques with everybody who came through that door, so people have just been arrested by the police, they’re coming to the jail. He’s the first person they deal with, and so automatically, these people are hostile toward him. They don’t like him. One of his techniques was, before he did anything, was to do something to establish common ground. Maybe he would notice a shirt that they were wearing that had a team logo on it or something. He would make some comment about that shirt, or he would notice a tattoo and just ask about it. Some little thing that says, “Hey, you and I are both people here. You and I are both on the same level, even though we’re not, but don’t view me as an enemy. View me as somebody who’s a little bit interested.” That was the message that he was sending. More often than not, it worked. Of course, sometimes it didn’t, but there’s nothing to lose. It only took him a second to do it, so why not do it?

Brett McKay: There’s establish common ground. What are some of the other ground rules?

Shawn Smith: The other ground rules are not shaming the aggressor, like particularly with somebody who’s feeling desperate. Not telling them that they’re being ridiculous, or not being dismissive toward their concerns, and not shaming yourself, which is very easy to do. When you’re behaving as if you’re powerless, so if you’re dealing with somebody who’s desperate, and they’re looking for a solution, and you’re sending the message that you don’t have the solutions, that you’re kind of helpless, that’s not going to help them get back on track. If you’re dealing with a predator, being somebody who shows yourself as powerless and overly self-deprecating, again, they’re looking to breach boundaries. Well, you’ve given them something that they can breach. Being too self-deprecating, although self-deprecating can show power, sacrificing boundaries, behaving powerless. Those are all examples of shaming yourself.

Another important ground rule is knowing what you want to accomplish in a situation. It’s really easy to just get caught into arguing with someone, because that lizard brain that you’re talking about, that reptilian mind, that’s contagious. When somebody’s arguing with you, and they’re at a very low emotional level, they’re operating out of emotion, it’s really easy for me or you to shut off our intellectual brains and just start arguing emotional. It’s really important that you keep in mind, “What am I actually trying to accomplish here?” Then, being flexible about how you get there.

I think one of the biggest ones is just listening to your intuition. We have these giant brains that are processing tons of information, and it’s not all verbal. Some of it just shows up as a feeling, and practicing listening to that, knowing how it speaks to you, and like my friend Christina would say, being able to listen to it when it’s trying to talk to you.

Brett McKay: The idea of intuition, I think it’s a hard thing to grasp for people, particularly us. We think we should be rational. Intuition seems so irrational. How do you train your intuition? How do you figure out whether you’re being overly paranoid, or whether something’s a problem. You should follow this hunch that you’re having.

Shawn Smith: I’ve got 2 things on that. The first one is that for different reasons, men and women experience exactly what you said. It’s tough to listen to your intuition. Women are taught traditionally not to be emotional. They’re taught to be polite. This is what happened with Christina. She was the one who was assaulted in the mountains. Her intuition was telling her not to follow this guy, but her training, her social training, was, “We have to be polite. We can’t make people feel bad.” It was that motivation that led her to deny her intuition. Then, I think the second part of it is, just recognizing your intuition for what it is. Well, I didn’t finish the male part. The male part is that, I think, men are often taught to ignore intuition because it’s emotional, and we’re supposed to be stoic and rational. Men and women both have similar difficulty for different reasons.

I think ways to start listening to your intuition is, number 1, to recognize what it is that’s stopping you from listening to it if you’re having trouble listening to it, and recognizing how it shows up in your body, because this is just information that your body is processing, and knowing and being able to identify what kind of thoughts show up when your intuition is speaking to you. It might be indirect thoughts about what’s going on. What kind of emotions are showing up? Maybe you’re just feeling uneasy, or maybe you’re feeling like retreating. Being able to identify that as something that says your intuition is talking to you, like a little dashboard, like the red light on your dashboard that comes on that says, “There is a problem.” Sometimes, it’s not clear what the problem is. There’s just a problem.

Then, physically knowing how it shows up for you. Do you feel a tightness in your chest? Do you start getting a headache, or a throbbing, or do things become distant? Really keying in on the cognitive, the emotional, and the physical warning signs that your intuition is trying to tell you something, and then being willing to stop, and step aside, and ask yourself, “What’s going on here?”

Brett McKay: Don’t be afraid to act on it, because, like, what’s the harm? What’s the worst that …? At best, you prevent yourself from getting attacked. At worst, you have embarrassed yourself a little bit, maybe.

Shawn Smith: I tend to look at everything as, like, a Vegas bet. “Is this a sucker’s bet, where the best thing that can happen is I break even, and likelier that I lose, or is this a good bet where I can break even and win?” In Christina’s case, she was the one who was assaulted in the mountains, I think what she would say is it would have been uncomfortable for her to say no to this guy, but beyond that, it would have cost her nothing. It would have been the safe bet to just listen to her intuition.

Brett McKay: When you talk about dealing with desperate aggressive people, you talk about using listening, empathizing, and creating options. The acronym is LEO you use in the book. Where do most people mess up when implementing LEO with a desperate aggressor?

Shawn Smith: All the time that I spent in detox facilities and residential treatment facilities and brain injury units, and even out on the street with the Guardian Angels, the place that I saw people struggling the most was the listening phase. It’s not because we’re bad people. It’s because most of us have this urge to fix the problem. When somebody’s trying to explain what’s going on, why they’re frustrated, I think the impulse in a lot of people is to calm them down and to get them to stop making us tense, but really, the opposite thing is what you want to do. If somebody’s talking to you about what’s bothering them, let them go. You don’t want to talk over them. They’re going to run themselves out eventually. Nobody can stay upset and agitated forever. As long as somebody is talking, and complaining, it’s uncomfortable to listen to, but it’s an important thing to do. That’s where most people, I think, struggle.

Brett McKay: What are some things people can do to overcome that tendency to want to jump right away to trying to solve this person’s problem? How do you listen with a desperate aggressor?

Shawn Smith: I think that you retrain yourself. I’m very big on scenario training. I know that scenario training is not practical for most people, but a part of this section of the book is about dealing with agitated patients in health facilities. I’m very big on nurses, and health care workers, and doctors doing scenario trainings when they can practice these interventions where you have somebody pretending to be an agitated person, and you learn to sit with that agitation, and sit with the discomfort of it, and ask them questions that are guiding them toward a solution but not try to shut them down and immediately fix the situation.

Brett McKay: What do you do if LEO doesn’t de-escalate the situation? Say you’ve listened, you empathized with them, you’ve helped create some options for them, but that still doesn’t work. They’re still agitated and aggressive.

Shawn Smith: I should preface this answer by saying any time you’re dealing with any of these people, your first impulse should be to get out of there. The assumption is that you already considered escape and it’s not really practical, so now you’re trying to rely on these verbal de-escalations. If it doesn’t work, you have to start thinking about escape, really, and you can go back, and you can … If somebody’s continuing to be agitated, you can go back and recognize that agitation doesn’t last forever, typically. Drug-induced agitations sometimes last a really long time, and if you’re trapped with somebody, typically the agitation is not going to last forever. If you’re trying to listen to somebody and you’re trying to empathize, and you understand what it is that they’re trying to solve, and you’re trying to provide options, and none of it’s working, and you can’t escape, you can always go back to keeping them talking. As long as somebody is talking, they’re usually not attacking. They may be amping themselves up a little bit, but talking is good.

Brett McKay: Keep them talking, all right. Let’s talk about expert aggressors. What expert aggressors do is they test boundaries. If they show that you’ll give in to a boundary, they’ll escalate until they’ll finally do the thing that will get them what they want. How do you nip expert aggressors in the bud so this boundary testing doesn’t even happen?

Shawn Smith: You nip them in the bud by responding as quickly as you can when you start to notice that something doesn’t feel right. I outlined 6 or 7 examples of predators testing boundaries and grooming people for attacks. Somebody who’s being over-accommodating, for example, in Christina’s example. This guy was being way too nice to a total stranger. He was apparently trying to help her. That’s one example of somebody who’s just trying to get a foot in the door. They’re ignoring your protestations when you say that you don’t need help, or you don’t want them around, but they just keep pushing, and they’re trying to get their nose under the tent, the camels under the tent, or get their foot in the door, trying to just wheedle their way in a little bit, or somebody who’s just testing personal boundaries. Somebody who’s standing too close, almost as if they’re trying to see how you’re going to react, or just violating little social conventions. Seeing how people respond, or exploiting sympathy or guilt.

I outlined several of these to look for, and as soon as you notice them, that’s the time to react, at the very earliest phase. The longer it goes, the harder it becomes to respond to them. If you respond early, typically you can do so pretty politely, and do so with some finesse, and you can send the signal, “I’m not the target that you’re looking for,” and end early, hopefully.

Brett McKay: Expert aggressors are predators of opportunity, so if they see it’s going to require a lot of energy, or effort, or time, they’re not going to waste their time.

Shawn Smith: Exactly.

Brett McKay: What are some things that people can do? Expert aggressors, they look for victims, easy victims. What are some things that people can do to look less like a victim so they’re less likely to be targeted by an expert aggressor?

Shawn Smith: I think that as people study this kind of thing, any time you start putting some energy in this area, learning how to not be a victim, you start carrying yourself differently. That’s really what this is, dealing with expert aggressors, is all about, is the non-verbal signals that you send to them. You want to send the signal that you’re somebody who’s capable, and resourceful, and confident, and happy, and somebody who’s not going to be easily isolated, somebody who’s not going to be easily profited from. Somebody who’s very attuned to these testing rituals. The whole point of the testing rituals is that they’re looking, a predator is looking for the bad target. If you show them that they’re the bad target, then there’s almost kind of an agreement there that takes place, where, “All right. I get it. I’m not going to mess with you. I’ll go to the next person.”

Brett McKay: Shawn, I have a question here that just popped up in my mind. How does this change in the online world? I think with cyber bullying, or trolls, these seem like these are expert aggressors. How does these tactics change when you’re online?

Shawn Smith: They are expert aggressors, but it’s such a small and petty game that they’re getting, the people who go on a website to troll and try to get people agitated. They’re not profiting materially from it. They’re just getting a little bit of juice, I guess, that makes them … I don’t know what they get from it, but it’s small. It’s not really costing anybody anything other than making people angry and keeping them up at night.

I came across a story recently that … Who was it? It was NPR, I think, it was closing down their comment section, and they’re doing it partly in response to this, that you’ve got this very small group of people who are just kind of ruining it for everybody, and it’s expensive for them to maintain this comment section, so why do it? I recently saw that, and I thought, “That’s a brilliant idea. Why haven’t I done that?” I had my own blog, and the comments, they range from kind of interesting, to just nauseatingly hostile. I decided to do the same thing. I’m just not going to deal with it anymore. I think that online, it’s very easy to just turn away from the trolls. Let them go bother someone else.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this. We’ve talked about expert and desperate aggression. These are sort of the normal types of aggression you see, but you also talked in your book about handling aggression caused by neuro-behavioral problems. There might be a few people who are listening to this who are dealing with this, say they have a family member or a friend who had a traumatic brain injury, which one of the symptoms sometimes is increased aggression, or they have a child who has a severe form of autism that causes aggression as well because there’s, like, misunderstanding between the parent and the child. How does your approach change to handling aggression in these sorts of scenarios?

Shawn Smith: It changes pretty dramatically. The reason I put that, it’s an appendix in the book. It’s a couple of chapters at the end. The reason I put it in there is I did my dissertation on this type of work in a brain injury unit, helping staff members de-escalate, keep things calm. What happens, like you said, there does tend to be periods of aggression that people go through after head injuries, for example. Aggression that is induced by medication. What’s happening there, typically, is a disconnect between a frontal cortex that tells us how to be calm and cool, and the lower reptilian brain, that limbic system that is very emotion-driven. Basically, the brakes are taken off of the aggressors. It’s not that they become more aggressive. It’s that the brakes are broken.


A couple of dramatic differences is, number 1, if you’re in a home, your own home, and you have somebody like this living with you, or if you’re in a facility, number 1 is that you have teamwork, and you can practice scenarios, you can prepare and you can construct the environment such that a person has a place to retreat when they’re trying to solve a problem. That’s huge. The other big part of that is the scenario training, and you being prepared, and you knowing how this person works, which you don’t know with a stranger. If you’re dealing with somebody that you deal with every day, you can quickly get a sense of where their triggers are, how to get them to take a break so that they can start solving their own problem, and usually in these cases, there’s always a sense of desperation that the person is feeling. If you can create a time element where they can cool off a little bit, and then build in a structure where you’re helping them figure out how to create solutions, then the violence can decrease dramatically.

Then, there’s just the basic techniques of, how do you respond? How do you speak to somebody? Somebody in a room is becoming agitated, how do you approach that room? Do you approach as a team, you present this great big front that’s coming toward them, or do you take a softer approach? I’m real big on the softer approach, because most people in those situations are trying to get themselves under control, so the task of the people around them is to be supportive of that as possible.

Brett McKay: Shawn, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about the book and your work?

Shawn Smith: I have a blog called, and it’s the word “iron” and the word “shrink” all run together. Anything you want to know about me is up there, and the book is up there as well.

Brett McKay: Shawn Smith, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Shawn Smith: Thank you, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Shawn Smith. He’s the author of the book Surviving Aggressive People. It’s available on and book stores everywhere. Also check out his website,, where you can find more content from Shawn on dealing with aggressive people, as well as some other topics in psychology. Also, check out the show notes at for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at, and if you enjoy the show, I’d appreciate if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.

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