Do you know how to talk to an angry person?
Have you ever come across a group of angry people, or an angry person, and not known how to talk to them? Perhaps you’ve had to deliver bad news to your team about cutbacks, redundancies, or a reduction in salary, particularly recently?
Are you a nurse or other professional who’s had to cope with the angry family of a patient? Or a rowdy group of drunks fooling around in the A&E department? I dare say we’ve all come face to face with at least one angry person in our lifetime.
Unfortunately, I’ve had a few angry
people men crowding my personal space, fists clenched, close up and spitting with rage. Some had me back up against a wall or cowering in fear, and one turned to physical abuse.
But let me tell you something now, I won’t ever allow this kind of behaviour again, and I hope you won’t either. It’s never acceptable – ever!
Recent tales of anger and aggression
A group of angry young thugs attacked my nephew on his way home from a night out. They surrounded him, swearing at him for ‘looking at them’ and ‘saying something nasty.’
My nephew was tipsy, but he tried reasoning with them. However, he’d barely spoken when one of the thugs headbutted him and he stumbled and fell to the ground. The rest joined in, kicking him in the face, head and upper body.
Fortunately, a car stopped, the thugs ran off and the driver called both the police and ambulance. My nephew was badly bruised and sustained a cracked cheek bone and a broken nose.
My friend was in a store recently and she inadvertently queue-jumped. She hadn’t realised that the group behind her were adhering to the 2 metre rule. She just saw a space and strolled into it.
A group of angry young ladies verbally abused and threatened her, despite her sincere apologies. My friend left her full trolley, and the store.
My nephew and my friend later wondered if there was anything they could have said or done differently. The thugs appeared to be on a mission, and nothing Tommy said would have stopped them.
On the other hand, Louise might have been able to calm the situation as it was broad daylight and she was surrounded by people. However, had I been her say last week, when I felt desperately low in mood and anxious, I might have panicked and done what she did. Today, I would have handled it differently.
Reasons to be angry
While the above tales may be extreme, it appears that people are becoming more angry, and about many things. Americans are living in a big ‘anger incubator.’ Americans are angry about the death of George Floyd. They’re angry about police violence and the country’s legacy of racism.
Around the world there’s anger provoked by the coronavirus pandemic: anger at public officials because they’ve shut down parts of society. Or anger because they aren’t doing enough to curb the virus.
People are angry about having to to wear masks, or angry toward people who refuse to wear a mask. Others are angry with anyone who doesn’t see things their way.
In London, everyone from tenants, residents, shop-keepers, businesses and black cabbies in London are angry. They’re angry and taking to the streets because of Sadiq Khan’s ridiculous road closures and under used cycle lanes.
We’re surrounded by anger – we get angry at t.v. or the news, and if it’s not that, it’s social media. If it’s not politics it’s soaring crime levels.
But anger is normal, right?
Anger is a normal but very powerful human emotion that can range from slight irritation to strong rage. There’s good reason for anger too. It lets us know that there’s a barrier in the way of something that’s undoubtedly important to us. It’s this barrier that evokes an emotion in us, which leads to our anger.
You see, anger doesn’t act alone. It’s always driven by another emotion like fear, anxiety, jealousy, disgust, frustration or other strong feelings. And often, rather than show any of these emotions, for whatever reason, we become angry.
Think about the man who you’ve just told is about to lose the job he desperately needs. Rather than express sadness or disappointment in front of you, his male boss, he might show anger. Behind his angry shield, he’s feeling threatened — not by you, but by the loss of his job, his salary or his status.
As women, because we often get “Oh, don’t turn on the waterworks,” we don’t. We get defensive, and angry (mainly at that comment).
So how do we talk to an angry person
We all know how easy it is to become upset or flustered when we’re confronted by an angry person and we don’t know what to say or do. If we don’t know how to respond, we can easily make the situation worse. However, when we respond calmly and with empathy, we stay in control, and can diffuse the situation effectively and courteously.
Let’s take a look at a few simple ways to reduce the anger and maintain a sense of calm. While the angry person is raging and waving their hands around, or blustering, red in the face and finger-pointing:
- Take a few slow and deep breaths. Effective breathing techniques will slow your heart rate down and have a calming effect on you.
- Try to maintain a relaxed but confident posture — hold your head up but let your shoulders drop down from your ears, unclench those fists and relax your jaw. Crossing your arms, heavy sighing or tutting and rolling your eyes is a surefire way to add fuel to someone’s fire.
- Try to remain or at least appear calm but for crying out loud, don’t say “calm down!” to the angry person who’s about to blow a gasket. If you didn’t already know this — it’s like a red rag to a bull.
- Listen actively, and show that you’re listening by giving appropriate eye contact, just don’t stare or glare. Try to understand what’s driving their anger i.e. they feel hurt, judged by you or others in some way, they might feel let down, disappointed, disrespected or afraid.
- Once you’ve listened to them, do not say “I understand but,” or “okay, but.” We’ve all been on the tail end of that response. A simple change of the word ‘but’ to ‘and’ can often make a difference, and that’s another post.
An example might be
The lady with two screaming toddlers who fumes at the receptionist in the doctor’s surgery. “I’ve been waiting for almost an hour, I’ve been up all night with these two and I need to be seen now.”
The receptionist smiles and says “I understand, but everyone else has been………”
“No you don’t bloody understand……….” fumes the lady. You don’t know that hubby screamed at her to keep the kids quiet so she’s upset and and tearful. It can soon escalate into something like “….. you patronising old jobsworth.”
- Responding to someone’s needs calmly can be the key to gaining cooperation from the emotionally agitated person. In tough situations, the issue at hand isn’t usually the actual issue. How you handle the issue becomes the actual issue.
- Show empathy, kindness and compassion, and an apology can go a long way too. You might say “I’m really sorry you’ve had to wait for so long and I appreciate how frustrating it must be. I’ll go and see if there’s anything I can do.” Then go and do just that.
Acknowledge their anger
- Acknowledge their anger. If someone expresses anger and you fail to react to it they’ll feel like they aren’t getting through to you. Think about how you would feel in a similar situation. Imagine you’ve been charged £15.00 by the bank for going overdrawn by 59 pence. You explain to the bank teller that you were only overdrawn for a few hours because your salary went in at midnight.
The bank teller might say, “I can see you’re annoyed and I’d like you to know that getting to the bottom of this is just as important to me as it is to you.” Or “I think I understand what’s happened here, but please correct me if I’ve got it wrong.”
You’d feel listened to and understood, and you’d calm down. You know it’s not the teller’s fault and that at least they’ve offered to help fix the issue.
So we’ve covered how to breath and relax, remaining calm and listening. Then apologising and using your effective communication skills like empathy and kindness to help calm the angry person. Understand what’s driving their anger and acknowledge that, responding calmly and taking any necessary action to fix the issue.
When we’re able to diffuse someone’s anger, it can help us to deal with others who perhaps lack the emotional intelligence to manage their emotions. Let’s explore this further and continue with more strategies to diffuse anger in the follow-up post.
Over to you
When was the last time you had an angry person shouting at you? What did it make you feel like? Or were you angry and someone dealt with your complaint inappropriately? How could they have handled it differently? I’d love for you to share your experiences or just comment, or ask any questions.