Nonverbal Indicators of Violence: What to Look For

Bret Brooks
Posted on November 4, 2009
Bret Brooks is a full-time police officer, a SWAT team sniper and a captain in the U.S. Army.
Bret Brooks is a full-time police officer, a SWAT team sniper and a captain in the U.S. Army.

Encountering violence is not something that is limited to police officers. Today's society is filled with violent images, movies and video games, all of which can affect children and potentially cause them to behave violently.

As children become increasingly violent, they are unable to modify their behavior when they want to conceal their actions and intentions - there will be warning signs of impending aggression because human behavior and communication depend highly on body language.

Nonverbal clues can indicate when danger is near, but only if people know what to look for.

There are a number of resources available to aid in this, including books, videos and training programs. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker is, in my opinion, the best book on the market that addresses human intuition. I recommend that everyone put this book at the top of their reading lists.

If you can recognize indicators of violence at the onset of a situation, you will be able to react appropriately and, possibly, thwart the violence altogether.

Breaking down the human body into sections, I will examine indicators of violence associated with the head, hands and lower body, as well as a person's clothing.

Hands on head

As a person becomes angry, frustration builds up. Anger is an emotion, and as such, it is processed in the brain. When the mind fills with hate, it will attempt to release the emotion in any way possible.

One way it will attempt this is to subconsciously instruct the person to raise his or her hands to his or her head. The hands will physically touch the head, or come very close to touching the head. Often, the person will rub his or her head and scalp. The hands will then become clenched as they "grasp a hold of the anger."

The hands, holding the anger, will then move away from the head, releasing some of the emotional build-up. This is an immediate indicator that a person is becoming violent.

Clenched fists, hand wringing

Clenched fists are a sign of anger that most people recognize. Other indicators include popping one's knuckles, rubbing one's hands together and hand wringing. A student performing these actions may be preparing his or her hands for a fight by loosening their muscles and tendons.

Hand wringing is a subconscious action similar to raising the hands to the head in order to "grasp" anger. Once the anger has been grasped, the body needs a way of releasing the anger from the hands. Wringing one's hands together, like drying them off on a towel, allows the anger to fall from the hands and away from the body. Finger pointing is another aggressive act.

Aggressive lower body stance

When people prepare to fight, they will position the lower portion of their bodies in a stance that is suitable for fighting or fleeing. Their feet will be positioned shoulder-width apart and their knees will bend slightly. This allows people to punch using the force of their entire upper bodies, to kick, or to turn and run away.

The body will also blade to a person's strong side. If the person is right-handed, he or she will move his or her left side forward, toward the perceived threat, and the right side back at an angle. Someone who is left-handed will take a stance in the opposite direction, with the right side forward.

Removing clothing
Similar to grasping the head or wringing the hands, removing clothing is another way for a person to release built up anger and frustration. By shedding articles of clothing, the person is attempting to "lighten his load."

There is another reason that a person will remove articles of clothing. By taking off a hat, coat or jacket, the person is freeing his or her body from restrictions. A person who throws a punch while wearing a T-shirt will find it much easier than punching while wearing a jacket. By taking off layers of clothing, the person is preparing for a fight.

Taking preventive action is crucial

All of the aforementioned indicators should be examined together in relation to the circumstances under which they occur. Furthermore, nonverbal clues should be examined in conjunction with verbal indicators. A student who displays only one of these indicators may not become violent, but a person who displays numerous indicators should be closely monitored.

(Also, be aware that some people simply do not display any indicators prior to a violent attack.)

Something else to keep in mind is that the younger the student, the more he or she will test a situation before becoming violent. While an adult may not display any indicators prior to attacking someone, a young child will "test the water" over an extended period of time. As the student feels out the situation, he or she builds confidence.

Taking preventive actions during this "testing" phase is essential. Doing so tells the student that his or her behavior is inappropriate and will not be tolerated. If the student feels the "water is too deep," he or she will, in most cases, stop and not become violent.

There is no one cure-all or "silver bullet" to prevent violence. However, recognizing warning signs and taking immediate and appropriate action to stop the behavior is a substantial step in the right direction.                          

Bret Brooks is a senior instructor for Gray Ram Tactical LLC, a full-time police officer, a SWAT team sniper, and a captain in the U.S. Army. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice, a Master of Arts degree in national security, and has focused numerous studies on terrorism and violence. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related Topics: behavior management

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