Calm and collected

Maria Warner, recycling and strategy manager at Oxford Direct Services, outlines some top tips for dealing with conflict and difficult residents.

Conflict and aggression are complex subjects, not least because what one person sees as an acceptable form of expressing anger or frustration may be seen as a violent act by others.

Aggressive behaviour can put our employees at risk as they can be distracted from their duties, creating a health and safety issue, or left with physical or emotional injuries.

Aggression comes in several forms, with some more obvious than others. While many people picture violent behaviour such as a physical attack, aggression can also manifest in more subtle – but equally destructive – actions. Some people would never lay a hand on another, but use verbal abuse to demean and intimidate or threaten.

Confrontation can be a daily occurrence for operatives, be it an angry motorist eager to get by the dustcart as it services a street, or an abusive resident questioning why their recycling bin has not been emptied. We will not tolerate abuse in any form to our workforce, so we need to make sure they are trained and prepared for situations as best we can.

We ensure every operative has attended a ‘toolbox talk’ on this subject, so they know how to manage these situations; we also cover this on our biannual training days.

Our top tips are:

  1. Do not fight fire with fire. Never engage aggressive behaviour with more of the same, because this will only trigger more aggression.


  1. Keep your cool. The less reactive you are to provocations, the more you can use your better judgement to handle the challenge.


  1. Keep your distance. Always try to maintain a distance from any possible physical contact.


  1. Acknowledge important ideas or facts as this will help to defuse their aggression and help them become more open to discussion.


  1. Calm the situation down. Maintaining a calm tone and pointing out the situation is getting heated can help to reduce aggression. Maintaining open/non-aggressive body language, such as ‘open palms’ facing the other person, may also help.


  1. Time to cool down. If the situation is not abating, then politely and calmly remove yourself from it and give the other person time to cool down.

Each situation is different and we would expect most to be dealt with by the team at the time, but there is an escalation process:

  • If the operatives feel threatened either verbally or physically, they should contact the office. This will be logged and investigated by the relevant person if needed.
  • Follow-up action may be required by a supervisor or team leader, and this is assessed on a case-by-case basis.
  • Situations may need monitoring, reviewing or further escalation to the community response team (our in-house team deals with anti-social behaviour).
  • The police may also be contacted directly if necessary.

Conflict management is a key skill for all professionals. View a CIWM webinar at

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2019 issue of Circular. 

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