The unprecedented and lengthy COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the volatile national political atmosphere, have left many people feeling confused and on edge. Some are acting and lashing out in ways they might not have before.

Among the recipients of these outbursts are public employees, board and committee volunteers, and elected officials. Local and regional news outlets have published numerous stories about contentious public hearings and board meetings where things got out of hand. And in some communities, public officials are reporting a loss of civility that sometimes reaches the level of bullying and threats to their safety. As a result, some are stepping away due to these conditions.

COVID can’t be blamed for all the bad behavior, but acting out by members of the public has been on the increase, according to Lin Chabra, member services manager for MIIA.

“During a recent focus group, we learned from municipal human resource representatives that they are witnessing an increase in unprofessional, often frustrating, or angry interactions involving workers and residents in the workplace,” she said. “We understand this COVID period has presented many challenges to individuals as well as municipalities, and we have worked with the MIIA Employee Assistance Program to offer two de-escalation trainings to help employees learn the skills they need to make these difficult interactions more professional and productive for all parties.”

The first training, “Dealing With an Angry Public in a Post-COVID Environment,” aims to help municipal employees learn how today’s unique pressures have thrown many into a perpetual fight-or-flight response. The second is “De-Escalation Techniques for Municipal Employees.”

Management strategies
Here are some of the key points to understanding what might be going on with someone who is acting out, as well as some strategies to manage the situation:
Escalation can come about when a person feels threatened and afraid, triggered and/or overwhelmed, out of control, minimized and invalidated, disrespected and attacked, ignored and not heard, unwanted and rejected, or entitled.

According to the Joint Commission, the nation’s largest standards-setting and accrediting body in health care, the following are the 10 best ways to de-escalate a situation:
• Be empathetic and non-judgmental. Focus on understanding the person’s feelings, whether or not you think those feelings are justified.
• Respect personal space. If possible, stand 1 ½ to 3 feet away from the person.
• Keep your tone and body language neutral. The more a person loses control, the less they hear your words.
• Avoid overreacting. Remain calm, rational and professional. How you respond to their behavior can affect whether the situation escalates or defuses.
• Focus on the thoughts behind the feelings. Some people have trouble identifying how they feel about what’s happening to them. Watch and listen carefully for the person’s real message.
• Ignore challenging questions. If a person challenges your authority, redirect their attention to the issue at hand.
• Set limits. If the person’s behavior is belligerent, defensive or disruptive, give them clear, simple and enforceable limits. Offer concise and respectful choices and consequences.
• Choose wisely what you insist upon. If you can offer a person options and flexibility, you may be able to avoid unnecessary altercations.
• Allow silence. By letting silence occur, you are giving the person a chance to reflect on what’s happening and how to proceed.
• Allow time for decisions. When a person is upset, they may not be able to think clearly. Give them a few moments to think through what you’ve said.

Most members of the public are respectful and courteous, but being prepared to deal with the few who are in crisis can keep you safe, maintain your professionalism, and is important for your self-care.

MIIA members can visit and click on the Quick Link “Calendar link to Trainings” to register for either or both of two online training sessions: “Dealing With an Angry Public in a Post-COVID Environment” on Sept. 9, 2-3 p.m., and “De-escalation Techniques for Municipal Employees” on Oct. 5, 10-11 a.m. The sessions will be recorded and available for review following the events.

Dealing With an Angrier Public in a Post-COVID Environment: Best Practices for Municipalities – MIIA presentation (3M PDF)
De-Escalation Techniques for Municipal Employees – Allone Health Employee Assistance Program presentation (1M PDF)

Written by Joyce McMahon, a freelance writer