Verbal Indicators of Violence

Bret Brooks
Posted on March 26, 2010

Depending on which research study is examined, approximately 70 to 93 percent of human communication is directly related to body language. Paralinguistic cues and nonverbal actions often inform the recipient of the deliverer’s intent. Examining these gestures is a key way to determine if a situation may become violent. However, it is also important to understand the verbal indicators of violence.

Comments about violent intentions

If a student makes comments about hurting or killing his or her peers, this is an important warning sign of potential violent behavior.

Young adults will often attempt to build up confidence before making any type of negative action. One way to test the situation before taking a weapon to school, for instance, may be by talking about bringing the weapon to school. If no action is taken to prevent the student from bringing the weapon, it confirms the child’s belief he or she can get away with bringing a weapon to school with the intent to hurt others.

If school bus drivers hear students talking about violent actions, they should notify the school. Similarly, if a teacher observes verbal indicators of violence, pupil transportation officials and school bus drivers should be made aware of the situation.

Good communication among school bus drivers, transportation administrators and school administrators may be all it takes to prevent a shooting at your school district.

Changes in vocal pitch, repetition and strained speech 

There are other, more immediate verbal indicators of violence to listen for. When the following patterns in speech and tone are heard, special attention should be given to the student displaying these warning signs.

An increase in pitch when speaking is a sign that a person’s throat and vocal cords are tightening. This is a reflex in response to the human body becoming nervous or apprehensive, and it could be a sign of impending danger.

Repetitive word use, parroting and/or echoing are other indicators of immediate danger. As a person’s body prepares to do something in response to Fight or Flight Syndrome, the brain focuses on the actions that are essential to life.

For example, as a person gets ready to punch, he or she does not think about where the verb goes in a sentence. The person will say the same thing over and over because it is fresh in his or her mind. Similarly, what a person hears in these moments is often repeated, and no formal processing of the information is completed. If you tell a person to sit down and he or she continually responds with “sit down, sit down, sit down,” this is a form of parroting or echoing.

Forced or strained speech is another verbal indicator of possible violence. Again, the person is not thinking about speaking — he or she is focused on fighting or running away and therefore has to force the words out of his or her mouth.

Inappropriate humor, aggressive statements and sarcasm

A nervous laugh or laughing at inappropriate times may also be a sign of impending violence. Laughing is a way for the body to shed emotions. In addition, this type of behavior helps to distract adversaries prior to an attack.

Something else to watch for is when a person speaks to others about someone as if they are not present. A student telling others directly in front of his or her adversary, “I am going to hit that guy” is displaying an immediate indicator of violence. Here again, the student is not thinking about words or conversations, he or she is attempting to shed emotion and build confidence. Immediate preventive action must be taken.

The final verbal indicator is the masked statement. This occurs when a student speaks the words that you want to hear, but speaks them in a tone or manner that is deceptive. For example, if you tell students to sit down and they reply, “Oh yeah, I’ll sit down!” in a sarcastic tone, it is a mask for their true intentions. Listen to the tone of a person’s speech.

Consider verbal and nonverbal indicators

Although there is no magic way to determine if students will become violent, observing both their verbal communication and their nonverbal actions and body language will increase your chances of identifying and preventing violence. (For information on nonverbal indicators of violence, click here.)

Also, remember that these indicators apply to students as well as to other people you may encounter. Be aware of your surroundings, hone your violence detection skills and be prepared to act when necessary.                

Bret Brooks is a senior instructor with 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 and a Master of Arts in national security, and he has focused numerous studies on terrorism and violence. He can be reached at

Related Topics: behavior management, student violence

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