Making a drama out of conflict training

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Conflict management training can give workers the skills and confidence to defuse or manage aggressive behaviour from customers, service users and the public, but it needs to be relevant, realistic and appropriate for the individual’s level of experience and capabilities.

The number of employees across the UK being subjected to verbal abuse, threatening behaviour and even physical assault has grown significantly over the past few years. Police statistics show that violent crime is on the rise, and this societal trend is reflected across sectors (for example, the NHS, retail, hospitality and transport), where staff regularly engage with or provide a service to the public.

Worthwhile Training helps organisations to develop a matrix for work-related violence and aggression training. Photograph: Worthwhile Training

The British Transport Police has reported an increase in assaults against rail staff and has raised specific concerns about the increased severity of the aggression being used. In response, they have set up a National Work-related Violence Unit to support train operating companies to tackle the issue.

In retail, the level of abuse and aggression has risen dramatically, and retail trade groups have worked together to highlight the issue. In response, the Government has produced a Retail Crime Action Plan with the first step being the creation of a new standalone criminal offence of assaulting a shop worker.

The above measures (and others) are all well and good, but right now many employees’ physical and mental health is being detrimentally affected by both the fear of aggression and actual incidents of personal abuse, harassment and physical assault.

So, how can organisations support their workers with practical guidance on how to stay safe and build personal resilience?

Realistically, where workers face the public, we are a long way off being able to eliminate the risk of work-related violence and aggression altogether. Whether the aggression is triggered by frustration (with service levels, price rises, rule enforcement, etc), or is an effect of human interaction (behaviours, attitudes, opposing views, etc), once proactive measures (body-worn cameras, security staff, etc) have been put in place to reduce the risk, workers will still need appropriate training on how to defuse or manage confrontational situations to stay safe.

Conflict management training that is role and risk-based, and provides practical strategies and techniques, is not a solution on its own, but as part of a wider risk management strategy it can certainly help increase both the competence and confidence of workers… so long as it is relevant, realistic and effective. So, what does that look like?

Role and risk-based training: a key question

To provide role and risk-based training, start by asking one question: do we need to manage the fear levels of our workers or the actual risks they face?

The answer is both, but the solution to each needs a different approach to training and support.

Relevant and appropriate

Worthwhile Training helps organisations to develop a matrix for work-related violence and aggression training. By mapping the job roles, level and type of risk (verbal abuse, harassment, threats, aggression or physical violence) and the skills needed, organisations are able to identify the training content required. The individual’s experience, their attitude to risk and their personal concerns and abilities are also important to consider.

Most conflict training will then be composed of the some or all of the following depending on the findings:

  • Understanding the causes and triggers of aggression
  • Your company policies and procedures
  • Avoiding conflict through safer/good working practices
  • Dynamic Risk Assessment tools (situational and behavioural awareness)
  • Staying in control under pressure and increasing personal resilience
  • Communication and de-escalation techniques
  • Legal rights and aspects of managing work-related violence
  • Self-protection and exit strategies
  • Reporting incidents and gaining support.

To engage learners, the content needs to relate to their working day and their experience.

For example, there is no point in training those who interact with people on the phone how to manage their personal space and physical exit opportunities. And for those who work alone in other people’s homes, spending time exploring how to call nearby colleagues for support will ensure that you disengage your learners, as this is not an option available to them. To answer the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question, learners need to see that you understand their world, believe that the training will help them and know that they can implement the ideas shared. 

Managers should not be forgotten in the training process. They need to understand how to fulfil their legal and business responsibilities and be able to support and reinforce the training provided to their teams.

Realistic and achievable

Training should be based on sound principles, be practical, acknowledge limitations and be mindful of the capabilities of the learners.

Often, organisations ask Worthwhile Training to provide physical intervention training without considering the implications and practicalities – and whether they really need it. If we are honest, the majority of workers will never become proficient enough after completing workplace training of this sort to really make a positive impact in an aggressive situation. There are some job roles that do require this form of training, but for many frontline workers, providing training that empowers safe behaviours and focuses on skills that will help them to firstly avoid aggressive situations, then defuse or exit situations where this is not possible is more appropriate. Where physical intervention is taught, it must be justified through evidence-based risk assessments and training needs analysis.

Some frontline workers report feeling powerless to stop aggression, so to answer the ‘what can I do?’ challenge, ensure that your training offers tools and strategies that workers feel they can adopt, that increases confidence and resilience and encourages workers to be aware of and take responsibility for their own safety.

Effective and accessible

Sadly, many of us have sat through training courses that felt like the classroom experience that we were glad to leave behind in our school years. And some workshops may have made us feel so fearful that we were going to get picked on to ‘take part and have a go’ that we were unable to concentrate.

Nicole Vazquez is director of Worthwhile Training. Photograph: Worthwhile Training

Research into learning engagement and learning retention shows that empowering, interactive and safe environments improve both engagement and retention. Managing aggression is already a difficult subject to address and can be triggering for some, so we need to find ways to engage our learners that reflect the reality of violent situations but are also safe, with no compulsory role-play!

Training options

  • E-learning, computer-based and gamification can be great tools for communicating core information around your policies and procedures for managing aggression
  • Webinars and virtual workshops can work well for awareness raising and sharing practical advice across a large audience
  • Storytelling is one of the most profound ways of teaching, and well-produced short films with a compelling narrative can be impactful for exploring scenarios and quickly communicating key learning points
  • If you are looking to change attitudes and behaviours and increase competence and confidence, then face-to-face, interactive and experiential-based learning is undoubtedly more effective.

Drama-based training

Role-play is not for everyone, and it has its limitations, lacking the reality of real situations (think amateur dramatics not Robert De Niro!) and creating uncomfortable moments for reluctant learners. But drama-based learning using ‘forum theatre’ and experiential learning, on the other hand, can be very powerful media. They are especially beneficial when combined for topics such as conflict management and dealing with aggressive situations, as they provide a context for defusion tools and techniques, offering learners the opportunity to explore challenging scenarios in a safe learning environment. They allow learners to connect the theories and knowledge learned in the workshop to real-world situations and test out the techniques while reflecting on their effectiveness. 

Forum theatre requires the involvement of professional actors and expert facilitators who are specifically trained to bring scenarios to life and facilitate the learning through drama.

Scenarios are developed after consultation with the organisation and recreate situations that the learners are likely to find themselves facing. The scenarios may show incidents that have not been managed well or have ended badly. Learners observe the scenes and are afterwards invited to interview the characters to explore their feelings and motivations. They are then asked to discuss what they have seen and learnt and consider how the scenario could have had a safer and more positive ending.

The scenarios are replayed with the learners guiding the actions and behaviours of the characters towards a better solution. The actors are trained to follow and respond honestly to the guidance and the facilitators also provide real-time feedback as to the impact of the learners’ advice.

To expand the learning further and make it truly experiential, learners can be offered the chance to get involved in the scenarios if they like. Joining in with professional actors, they don’t have to act, they can just be themselves in the scenario and learn by experimenting with the concepts shared during the workshop.

As well as being extremely engaging, drama-based training can significantly increase the understanding of the principles and strategies learned, improve confidence in their application and increase learning retention.


It may seem that there is a lot to think about ahead of a company’s employees stepping into a training workshop or opening a software package. But an understanding of workers’ concerns, the type of aggression they face, mapping the skills they need and considering how you are going to engage and effectively train your workers, is time well spent.

One final point; remember that the process of learning needs to be repeated to reinforce the messages and maintain confidence and competencies. Don’t expect to provide a training course – be prepared to provide a course of training. 

Violence, aggression and abuse: some damning statistics

  • UK Police forces recorded 2.1 million offences of violence against the person in the year ending March 2023. This was a 20 per cent rise compared with the pre-coronavirus year ending March 2020. (Crime Survey for England and Wales, March 2023)
  • Incidents of violence and abuse against retail workers increased by 50 per cent to 1,300 a day in the year to September 2023. (British Retail Consortium)
  • In 2023 it was reported that frontline rail workers expect work-related violence, and often feel unsafe at the beginning of their shift. (Cambridge University and RDG, 2023)
  • Staff exposed to work-related violence may be 2.3 times more likely to report anxiety, depression, burnout and psychological distress symptoms. (Rudkjoebing et al., 2020).

Nicole Vazquez is director of Worthwhile Training.


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