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Managing Hostile Situations

Fear, anxiety, and anger are common and legitimate reactions to a crisis that threatens public health and safety, and sometimes these emotions can surface in the form of hostility directed at public health professionals. Hostile situations are not only uncomfortable, they can erode communication, trust, and credibility—especially if handled ineffectively.

A hostile woman being escorted from a meeting
  • Structure difficult situations. If you anticipate resistance or hostility at a public meeting, set it up so that both you and the community can be treated as fairly as possible. Agree on an ending time and ground rules in advance, and make sure that everyone is aware of them.
  • Make yourself accessible. Try to avoid setting up an “us vs. them” situation. Don’t hide behind a podium or table. Consider going into the audience with a microphone so you can have a conversation with individuals asking questions.
  • Allow the outrage to vent early. People have difficulty processing information and listening when they are feeling intense emotions. Consider ways that people can vent this emotion early in the meeting, such as starting with the question and answer session. As questions are asked, you have opportunities to present the information (instead of giving a presentation that an emotional audience may not hear anyway). In some cases, the most successful outcome for a public meeting is the opportunity for members of the public to raise their concerns and feel heard.
  • Acknowledge the existence or potential for tension up front. The worst thing you can do is to pretend it’s not there. Example: “This is a difficult situation for everyone, and you have every right to feel upset about it.”
  • Listen. Recognize people’s frustrations and communicate empathy and caring. Demonstrate that you are listening, through eye contact and body language.
  • Don’t take it personally. Remember that public hostility is usually directed at you as a representative of an organization, not you as an individual.
  • Acknowledge the legitimacy of other perspectives. For example, “I can see your point.”
  • Acknowledge real problems. If someone raises a legitimate problem, offer to pursue the issue further.
  • Practice self-management. Try to control your apprehension—anxiety undercuts confidence, concentration, and momentum. Send the message that you are in control by remaining calm and not getting defensive.