Many caseworkers endure verbal abuse from clients. There are many de-escalation techniques, some more effective than others. How should you deal with a verbally abusive client? It starts with understanding and setting clear boundaries.
Social workers often help individuals who have historically struggled to follow rules in structured environments like work, school, or other everyday settings. This experience is also shared by K–12 teachers, emergency services, and healthcare workers, among others. However, it’s not uncommon for social workers to be left without much recourse for self-defense if the verbal abuse escalates to physical threats, except calling law enforcement.
So what should social workers do in the face of verbal abuse from their clients? Can physical violence be prevented with de-escalation? After all, practitioners who work directly with traumatized clients often experience burnout. In this article, we aim to show you some effective strategies to understand and respond to verbal abuse from clients. These recommendations should not necessarily replace any policies or procedures your organization already has in place, but you might integrate these tips into your overall strategy.
Defining and Understanding Verbal Abuse
The American Psychological Association defines verbal abuse as “extremely critical, threatening, or insulting words delivered in oral or written form and intended to demean, belittle, or frighten the recipient.”
If you’re reading this, there’s a strong chance you’ve interacted with a client who’s become visibly frustrated with you, hurled insults at you, or even threatened you. To understand verbal abuse, we have to understand why it’s considered abuse in the first place, which naturally begs the question, Why do we care what people say about us?
The Status Game: Exile and Insults
You don’t need to be a social scientist to understand that humans value social status and social connection with their peers. This evolutionary drive is why exile has been practiced as a punishment since time immemorial and is now considered unconstitutional in the United States. In our early human history, ostracism from the tribe was just a slow death sentence.
Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say ‘death’
For exile hath more terror in his look
Much more than death. Do not say ‘banishment.’William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
In other words, our drive to gain and maintain social status can be a powerful contributing factor for why verbal abuse is so psychologically hurtful, while the satisfaction of diminishing another’s status helps the bully feel he’s gained his own form of status. Mental illness can also contribute to paranoia, delusions, and the like, which could indicate the client has been marginalized or stigmatized in the past.
Now consider this: in domestic violence cases, the abuser will use threats, intimidation, and manipulation to control the victim. If the victim is a child, that child is statistically more likely to abuse her own children than if she hadn’t been abused as a child.
Social status, mental illness, and cyclical abuse are important to understand because many of the clients you will work with might have been abused at some point in their lives, and many of them will have a diminished socioeconomic status, be they an ethnic minority in their community, disabled or neurodivergent, or low income. Does that give them a free pass to disrespect you? Of course not. Learning to respect common, personal boundaries is crucial for anyone who’s been marginalized and hopes to improve their social determinants of health (SDoH).
So what should you do in the face of verbal abuse?
De-Escalation Techniques for Verbal Abuse and Physical Threats
De-escalation should be the first strategy for dealing with most verbally abusive clients, rather than use of force or combative communication. Remember, reasoning with an enraged person doesn’t usually work. Also, de-escalation techniques go against our natural instincts (i.e., fight, flight, or freeze) and therefore require practice until they appear natural.
There are two main principles to verbal de-escalation you should keep in mind:
- Nonthreatening body language
- Neutral communication
De-Escalation and Nonthreatening Body Language
Because we tend to process nonverbal cues first, physical stance and distance can really affect the emotions of someone in crisis. To establish a self-assured yet nonthreatening body language, follow these steps:
- If you’re wearing accessorized clothing (i.e., scarf, necktie, jewelry, earrings, religious or political symbols) and see an angry client approaching, you might remove those items if you can without their noticing. These items could cause more injury if the client attacks.
- If the client is standing over you, immediately stand up and maintain the same eye level. You might invite them to sit across from you if they’re not physically threatening.
- Ensure physical space of at least three feet between you and the client. An agitated client could move quickly to attack, so maintaining a proper distance should give you more time to respond.
- Don’t turn your back to the client if at all possible.
- If you have to stand, don’t “square up” with your client (i.e., standing with shoulders parallel to theirs), as that stance could be considered confrontational. Instead, stand at an angle, to help them feel less threatened by you.
- Avoid gestures that could be misinterpreted as confrontational. Clients with cognitive disorders or intellectual disabilities might be more sensitive to constant eye contact, pointing fingers or shaking fists, or physical touch.
- Keep your posture confident but relaxed, and don’t cave your chest or spine. When afraid, it’s often a reflex of ours to cave in our posture in a defensive reflex. That timidity just indicates you’re vulnerable and could encourage the client to attack.
- Don’t move quickly or suddenly. Such movement could put the client on high alert and trigger an angry response.
De-Escalation and Neutral Communication
Because enraged clients in social work tend to have lots of obstacles to receiving care, they might see you, the social worker, as an obstacle. Don’t take it personally. Often, social care settings can be frustrating for people who aren’t used to following procedures and bureaucracy. To ensure you’re communicating strategically (i.e., to de-escalate their aggression), follow these steps:
- Stay calm and professional. If a client is deliberately trying to provoke an emotional response from you, don’t let them. It’s natural to want to defend yourself, but defending against insults from an aggressive client might encourage them to continue “pushing your buttons” until they find the right one.
- Speak in a low, monotonous voice. Our natural tendency when frightened is to tense up, which causes our voice to sound shaky. Remember to keep breathing steadily. Do not raise your voice or try to talk over your client. Rather, wait until they take a breath.
- Show empathy, and listen to the client. You might find you can help solve the problem that’s causing them distress. Ask questions in a nonaccusatory manner, questions that show you’re listening. If the client is taking a while to respond because of some speech impediment or because of distress, let them talk slowly.
- After listening to the client’s grievances, establish boundaries. Let them know their hostile behavior can’t continue, in a calm yet firm tone.
- Don’t try to explain to the client what you think they’re feeling, and don’t argue with them. The former can feel patronizing, and the latter can feel combative.
- Offer clear but fair choices, no matter how rudely they’re behaving. They need to know the consequences of their behavior, but they also need to have a clear path to reconciliation.
Stay alert and see how the client is responding. Not all these techniques will work, and they won’t be universal for everyone. You’ll know within about three to five minutes whether the situation is improving.
We also encourage readers to review this checklist by the National Association of Social Workers, which contains questions you should ask yourself when evaluating your own de-escalation plan.
A Final Word: Preventing Burnout
When caring for others is your life’s work, it’s amazing what you can endure, but it comes with a cost. Social workers are facing burnout more than ever before, and it’s been reported, in the United Kingdom at least, that 40 percent of social workers in one large survey had been verbally abused.
One way to prevent burnout is to say no to verbal abuse. Some social workers have observed that, as a profession, they tend to minimize verbal abuse. (Sound familiar?) Almost like a partner in an abusive domestic relationship, we might dismiss verbal abuse because of the obstacles the other person is facing. However, even if you’re very emotionally resilient—which you probably are, given your profession—verbal abuse can have an unconscious effect you don’t recognize at first.
These two statements are simultaneously true: words only have as much power as we give them, but words still matter.
After all, allowing a client to verbally abuse you can also have downstream effects on how they operate in broader society.
So do yourself—and your clients—a favor. Don’t tolerate verbal abuse.