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Verbal Aggression

Verbal aggression is message behavior which attacks a person’s self-concept in order to deliver psychological pain.(Infante, 1995) Studies of verbal aggression have focused primarily on children and adolescents in educational and social settings. Very few studies were found to examine verbal aggression in adults in the workplace.(Ebbesen, Duncan, Konecni, 1974) The consequences of verbal aggression in the workplace can lead to social isolation, job related stress, health related problems, as well as problems in career advancement. It therefore should be considered important, for the individual and management, to identify and address the causes of verbal aggression.

This program attempts to understand verbal aggression by 1) identifying the various functions of verbal aggression. 2) identifying the antecedent conditions of verbal aggression. 3) Avoiding the antecedent conditions of verbal aggression.

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The subject, Shirley J., is a 49 year old African American female. Shirley J. has several advanced degrees and is employed as a school psychologist in a metropolitan school district. She is married with two adult children. The subject readily agreed that the target behavior, verbal aggression, is a problem as it interferes with her relationships with others. She was enthusiastic in her desire to reduce, if not eliminate, this behavior. It would seem that self-monitoring for verbal aggression and antecedent control would be valuable as it would allow for consistent avoidance of verbal aggression. As a school psychologist the subject was very familiar with the basic principles of applied behavioral analysis and frequently offered programmatic suggestions. A behavioral contract was developed jointly between the therapist and subject. The contract outlined the target behavior, success criteria, and individual responsibilities of the therapist and subject. (see Appendix A)
A basic checklist was used to document the frequency of verbal aggression on a daily basis. The checklist was designed to track only the occurrence of the behavior. It was felt by the therapist that the content of the verbally aggressive message would be too open for subjective interpretation and that no meaningful data would be gained from such documentation. In addition the subject made frequent comments of significant success or failure in avoiding verbal aggression for discussion with the therapist. The weekly discussions were used to evaluate the appropriateness of the procedures used and make any necessary adjustments to the program.

For the first two weeks of the program no intervention was applied. Given that the subject self-reported that verbal aggression was a problem it was important to determine if the frequency of the behavior merited intervention. Therefore, the subject documented the daily frequency of verbal aggression. The results of the baseline period revealed a high rate of verbal aggression. (see Appendix B) Given the results of the baseline data as well as the demanding, often stressful, nature of the subjects job, it was mutually agreed that reducing verbal aggression would be the focus of the program.

Verbal aggression was defined as cursing, yelling, and screaming at others. The agreed upon goals of the program was to decrease verbal aggression by 75% of baseline for four consecutive weeks. Treatment would consist of identifying and avoiding the antecedent conditions to verbal aggression. Avoidance of the antecedents is considered less restrictive, more proactive, and most effective. During the initial consultation it was determined that the antecedent conditions included, but was not limited to: work stress, time of day, verbal behavior of others (ie. tone of voice, inflection of voice and content of conversation, etc.), and non-verbal behavior of others (ie. facial expression, body posture, eye contact, etc.). In addition, the subject was required to self monitor for the following antecedents: clenched fists, tight jaw, rapid heart beat, and the emotions of anger, frustration and disappointment. Lastly, it was suggested by Infante (1995) that appropriate strategy must be taken to prevent verbal aggression from escalating.

Successful avoidance of the antecedent conditions consisted of removing oneself from stressful situations, when possible, as well as not responding verbally when provoked. Weekly consultation revealed that verbal aggression was most often used to: 1) Escape demand situations. 2) Avoid demand situations. 3) Relieve job stress. The subject was to document the frequency of verbal aggression and record the circumstances of significant success or failure during the work week for discussion at weekly consultation sessions.

A schedule of reinforcement was developed for the subject. The reinforcement was to be given for successful avoidance of verbal aggression. Reinforcement included: five minutes alone for ‘quiet time’, when possible, or a short, silent prayer. Considering the stress and escalating nature of verbal aggression time alone was considered appropriate for ‘cool down’. If time alone was not possible or convenient the subject would say a short prayer when provoked.

The results of the baseline phase revealed what was considered an extraordinarily high rate of verbal aggression. However, after the first week of data collection it was realized that verbal aggression was not operationally defined. The subject considered verbal aggression on much broader terms than did the therapist which included subjective, rather than objective, behavior observations. Weekly consultation sessions revealed that cursing was the most common manifestation of the target behavior. When correctly defined using objective terms a decrease in verbal aggression was noted. Based on the results of baseline data it was mutually agreed that 4 to 8 episodes of aggression per day was significantly high and merited intervention.

The results of the intervention phase of treatment revealed a sharp increase of verbal aggression over the first three weeks. This increase is thought to be due to extinction. Afterwards, a gradual decrease of verbal aggression was noted during weeks 4 through 9. No data was collected during week 10 due to subject illness. The treatment phase ended with a weekly average of one episode of verbal aggression. After week five the subject stated that she no longer delivered the reinforcement after the behavior. She reported that the ability to control her emotions was in itself reinforcing and would maintain the behavior.

The results of this program show that verbal aggression can be successfully decreased by identifying and avoiding its antecedent conditions. As stated previously, the subject used verbal aggression for escape from demanding or difficult situations, relief from stress, and avoidance of demanding or difficult situations. The behavior appears to be maintained through positive reinforcement. Because the subject is in a position of some power and influence there were relatively few consequences for the behavior. Ebbesen, Duncan and Konecni (1974) suggested that verbal aggression could be reinforced and maintained in such a manner. Since the most common form of verbal aggression was cursing, the method of identifying and avoiding the antecedents proved very successful. Infante (1995) used a similar method with young students. When replicating this program it may be appropriate to focus on the positive behavior rather than the negative. Instead of documenting the frequency of verbal aggression it may have been better to document the frequency of successful avoidance of verbal aggression. In this way we would help to internalize the strategy to maintain the behavior, as well as having a more positive and constructive program. A question raised by Golin and Romanowski (1977) was is there a sex difference in the rate and target of verbal aggression. Although this question was not investigated in the current program, it does raise an intriguing question for future study.

Ebbessen, E. B., Duncan, B., ; Konecni, V. J. (1974). Effects of Content of Verbal Aggression: A Field Experiment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 11, 192-204.

Golin, S., ; Romanowski, M. (1977). Verbal Aggression as a Function of Sex of Subject and Sex of Target. Journal of Psychology, 97, 141-149.

Infante, D. A. (1995). Teaching Students to Understand and Control Verbal Aggression. Communication Education, 44, 51-63.


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