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Verbal aggression

Verbal aggression is message behavior which attacks a person's self-concept


order to deliver psychological pain.(Infante, 1995) Studies of verbal


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,


related problems, as well as problems in career advancement. It therefore


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




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


readily agreed that the target behavior, verbal aggression, is a problem as


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


verbal aggression and antecedent control would be valuable as it would allow


consistent avoidance of verbal aggression. As a school psychologist the

subject was

very familiar with the basic principles of applied behavioral analysis and


offered programmatic suggestions. A behavioral contract was developed


between the therapist and subject. The contract outlined the target


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


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


message would be too open for subjective interpretation and that no


data would be gained from such documentation. In addition the subject made

frequent comments of significant success or failure in avoiding verbal


for discussion with the therapist. The weekly discussions were used to

evaluate the

appropriateness of the procedures used and make any necessary adjustments to




For the first two weeks of the program no intervention was applied. Given


the subject self-reported that verbal aggression was a problem it was

important to

determine if the frequency of the behavior merited intervention. Therefore,


subject documented the daily frequency of verbal aggression. The results of


baseline period revealed a high rate of verbal aggression. (see Appendix B)


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.


agreed upon goals of the program was to decrease verbal aggression by 75% of

baseline for four consecutive weeks. Treatment would consist of identifying


avoiding the antecedent conditions to verbal aggression. Avoidance of the

antecedents is considered less restrictive, more proactive, and most


During the initial consultation it was determined that the antecedent


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


clenched fists, tight jaw, rapid heart beat, and the emotions of anger,

frustration and

disappointment. Lastly, it was suggested by Infante (1995) that appropriate


must be taken to prevent verbal aggression from escalating.

Successful avoidance of the antecedent conditions consisted of removing


from stressful situations, when possible, as well as not responding verbally


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


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


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


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


high rate of verbal aggression. However, after the first week of data

collection it

was realized that verbal aggression was not operationally defined. The


considered verbal aggression on much broader terms than did the therapist


included subjective, rather than objective, behavior observations. Weekly

consultation sessions revealed that cursing was the most common manifestation


the target behavior. When correctly defined using objective terms a decrease


verbal aggression was noted. Based on the results of baseline data it was


agreed that 4 to 8 episodes of aggression per day was significantly high and



The results of the intervention phase of treatment revealed a sharp increase


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


weeks 4 through 9. No data was collected during week 10 due to subject


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


reinforcement after the behavior. She reported that the ability to control


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


situations. The behavior appears to be maintained through positive


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


a manner. Since the most common form of verbal aggression was cursing, the

method of identifying and avoiding the antecedents proved very successful.


(1995) used a similar method with young students. When replicating this


it may be appropriate to focus on the positive behavior rather than the


Instead of documenting the frequency of verbal aggression it may have been


to document the frequency of successful avoidance of verbal aggression. In


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


Romanowski (1977) was is there a sex difference in the rate and target of


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


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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