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Personal Space Back to Course Index

The proximity or distance between you and a possibly violent person is one of the most critical elements in defusing a potentially explosive situation. Even though you may have the best of intentions in moving close to the individual, you must realize that he may not feel the same. Your proximity can be perceived as a threat.

We all have an area surrounding our body which we consider an extension of our physical self. Any “invasion” or encroachment into that area tends to be perceived as a threat, or at least makes us feel uncomfortable. This is commonly known as our “personal space.” Personal space varies with each individual. The critical distance for most people is about 11/2 to 3 feet. Even in non-threatening social situations, we can become uneasy when a person is closer than 2 to 3 feet.

Be sure that you inform the individual what the sequence of events will be. If you are going to move her, let her know where she is going. Tell her why she is being moved. This is a good time to form a verbal contract with her and let her know that if she remains can, you will not need to restrain her again. Within safe judgment, allow the person to “make her own choices” while staff still maintain full control, should another violent outburst occur. The more therapeutic communication you initiate, the quicker she will regain total rationality.

Frequently, as we near a potentially violent person, we tend to forget that his personal space may be much larger than ours. “Stay out of my face!” is a commonly used slang expression. Interpreted, it usually means: “I feel threatened by you because you are coming too close to me.”

When approaching the potentially violent individual, stay in tune with his nonverbal behavior. He will often signal (by nonverbal means) the fact that you are getting too close. Clenched fists, tightening of the facial muscles, and movement away from you as you draw near are very common nonverbal signals. Give him as much space as you can. If the person feels threatened by your proximity, you increase the chances of the situation escalating and his behavior may progress into a level which is much more difficult to manage.