How to Deal With an Angry Person
A 3-Step Process
Can you guess what the worst thing is to say to someone who's angry?
Unfortunately, that is everyone's first instinct and often is exactly what is said. The intention is good. You know that if the angry person can calm down, then it's possible to talk about the issue at hand and maybe resolve it. The problem is that when you say "calm down", it just makes them angrier.
Here's why. Being told to calm down when you're upset or angry actually sends another message, which is that your feelings are not really valid, or they are over the top, or worse, that there's something wrong with you. The message is "Get rid of the feeling." Saying "calm down" is like pouring lighter fluid on a fire.
In order to get to a place where you can have a more reasonable discussion and come to a resolution, you have to first connect with the person and at the same time diffuse the anger. Here's how.
Say something that recognizes how the person is feeling, and say it with no judgment. "I see that something has really upset you." This statement connects with the feeling, but also does a good job of not blaming the person for having the feeling. If you said instead, "I see you're really angry," you may still connect, but you've laid the emotion on the person rather than on the situation. Try and keep the connecting statement geared toward observing the problem and not making a statement about the person. It's hard sometimes to do that, especially if the person is rancorous, but keep in mind that underneath most anger is the feeling of helplessness, and if you can join with the helplessness feeling, the anger will soften.
You've said, "I see that something has really upset you." Now follow that with a question that invites the person to tell you about it: "What happened?" or "What's causing you to feel that way? I'm all ears," or "I'd really like to understand." Give them a chance to unload. Let them tell you what's bothering them, even if they deliver it rather emotionally. As they talk, keep up your questions and repeat back to them what you think they're saying so they feel really understood. You will know it's working when the anger begins to subside. They will begin to see you as an ally rather than as someone to target.
Once the anger has subsided and the other person feels understood and heard, you now have a chance to talk about how to resolve the problem. If the problem directly involves you, you can say how you feel about the situation. You may also have learned something while listening that will give you some ideas about how to negotiate or come to a compromise. If you find that you have become too angry in the process of listening, then take a rain check on the discussion. Say that you understand their point of view very well now, but you need more time to think about what they've said. Problems don't always need to be resolved on the spot. It is fine to have a discussion about something that is difficult to resolve over a period of days. The important point to remember is that you cannot solve a problem when you or the other person is really angry, nor should you try.
If the original problem is not about you, then ask if the other person would like advice or not, or if they really just needed to vent. Don't give advice unsolicited.
In a Nut Shell
People mostly become angry when they feel helpless, misunderstood, taken advantage of, are afraid, or feel criticized. Often, they anticipate that they won't be heard. You have to deal with these feelings before tackling the real content of the problem. Remember the 3-step process:
- Connect with an empathetic statement.
- Diffuse by questioning, listening and repeating back what is said to show understanding.
- Resolve when the anger is diffused and there is a feeling of being on the same page.
When You Shouldn't Try This Process
When dealing with someone that has the potential to be violent or abusive, then it may not be wise to attempt to talk to them when they are really angry. Someone who is in a rage is not always amenable to attempts to diffuse their feelings, even if done in a reasonable way. In those cases, you should step out of the conversation and make yourself unavailable as soon as you can. If you are in a relationship with someone like that, or live with someone who has rage reactions often, you should seek counseling.