Running into people who are angry or upset is unavoidable-whether it’s an angry customer at work or a loved one whose emotions are running high.
In fact, 84% of respondents in a recent poll from NPR said Americans are angrier today compared to the previous generation.
While dealing with an angry person can be an uncomfortable situation, understanding how to respond to the person who is upset is important to maintain your own mental health, as well as the relationship you may have with the angry person. The person may not even be irritated with you directly, but the angry feelings they're giving off can be awkward to navigate during an interaction.
How you respond to the person’s anger can make a huge difference in how you manage and progress your relationship—personal or professional—going forward. Respond too harshly and you risk resentment or a heated confrontation. But, let escalating emotions slide and you fail to set and enforce your own boundaries and expectations.
In addition, some angry people can pose a real threat. Knowing how to sense that potential danger and finding a way to defuse the moment or get yourself out of the situation is key for your own safety.
If you’re caught in a situation where you need to know how to deal with angry people, here are 10 tried and true tactics you can try:
Responding to someone’s anger with more anger or using a sarcastic or annoyed tone will usually only escalate the situation. Even if the person’s anger frustrates you, think of ways you can maintain your composure in the moment. For some people, deep breathing, counting to 10, or focusing on another distraction can help. If none of those tactics work, try another method you know will help keep yourself calm.
By responding to the upset person in a calm, neutral tone, you may defuse the person’s anger. People tend to match the habits, tone, and body language of the people around them, and they may unconsciously calm down and mirror your approach if you set the example.
Additionally, if you fuel the fire with your own emotions, you’ll only work yourself up and prevent any constructive resolution from taking place. Those who work regularly in crisis situations know that keeping calm and focused is the best way to handle the problem at hand. In this case, the phrase, “Keep calm and carry on,” is a good mantra to keep in mind.
As you’re interacting with the angry person, ask unassuming questions to identify the cause of their frustration. Tell them that you want to understand their intense feelings and see if you can find a solution. Stick to facts and information points so you don’t go into the details of their angry feelings. Be sure to ask the questions politely and without judgment.
For example, instead of asking a disgruntled employee, “Why did you wait so long to bring up your frustrations?” try phrasing the question as, “Can you tell me more about your experience with this issue?”
Asking questions should make the person feel heard and valued, and hopefully soothe the tense situation. However, if the individual has an angry response to every question or is becoming increasingly agitated, read the room and switch to a new tactic.
Sometimes angry people have valid reasons for their emotions. If the person’s anger is understandable, try to express empathy for their situation and show that you can relate. If it helps, think of times when you have experienced your own angry feelings and think of what words might have calmed you down or made you feel better in that moment.
Using phrases such as, “That sounds like a frustrating experience” or “I can understand why that would be upsetting,” can help you connect with the distressed person and find a way to move forward on the issue.
Be careful to avoid statements like “I know how you are feeling,” since equating your own experiences might offend or even prompt an angry outburst. General, exploratory statements are best to navigate the conversation and show that you care.
When someone around you is displaying intense anger or another negative emotion, it can be difficult not to take their anger personally. However, it’s likely that you're not the problem and are instead in the wrong place at the wrong time and left dealing with the fallout.
In these moments, it’s helpful to emotionally distance yourself from the situation and recognize that you are most likely not the cause of the person’s reaction. To remove yourself emotionally, try distracting yourself with another object in the room or solely focusing on the words someone is saying, without letting their meaning sink in.
This will help you manage and respond to the other person’s anger without being caught up in your own emotions. By removing yourself and your emotions from the issue at hand, you’ll be able to walk away from the encounter without any lingering negative feelings.
Just because you’re staying calm and showing empathy does not mean you should let an angry person walk all over you or show any aggressive behavior. Maintain a respectful, but firm position when interacting with someone who is frustrated. If you disagree on an important point, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion.
Do not allow the individual to treat you with disrespect, including shouting, calling names, or continuously interrupting. If the person does any of these things, directly ask them to stop. If they don’t stop or continue to treat you with disrespect, you can walk away from the situation to show you won’t be treated that way.
Keeping a strong stance and showing that you won’t be walked all over may minimize the person’s intense feelings if they realize their uncontrolled anger won’t get them anywhere.
In some circumstances, a third party can be a healthy way to defuse the tension. The correct person to bring in depends on the environment you’re in. For example, for a workplace conflict, your manager or an HR representative might be the best source to manage the other person’s behavior and find a solution. For a personal issue, a therapist or someone you and the other person trust may be a helpful perspective to have in the room.
If the angry individual recognizes their anger management issues and wants to work on them, transformational coaching can be another beneficial way to seek help from a third party. This type of coaching can help the angry person dig into the root of the problem and can find different approaches to manage their anger based on their belief system.
The biggest advantage of bringing someone else into the situation is they can see the conflict from fresh eyes and may have a different, but effective, way of handling it that you couldn’t see clearly when you're so involved in the issue. In addition, sometimes another person with a title (such as your manager or a licensed therapist) may be seen as more credible and can get through to the person without invoking additional angry words.
If you think this strategy may be helpful, let the angry person know you think you both would benefit from an outside perspective. Name the third party and be sure to explain how this additional person will be useful in resolving the conflict. Then, find a time to discuss the issue at hand with this person (it may be immediately, depending on the circumstances).
If the person’s anger calls for an apology, either due to a company error or your own actions, own up to the mistake. Dancing around the issue or avoiding accountability will only increase the individual’s hostility and lead to worse behavior. Defensiveness can make others feel even angrier than they are already, so don’t respond with anything like, “That’s not what I meant,” or “I don't think this is my fault.”
A sincere apology takes responsibility and offers to find a way to rectify the situation. For example, “I’m sorry the company overcharged you for the product. Does a refund of the excess funds solve the problem?” Or in the case the fault is your own, try, “I’m sorry for my actions. They were hurtful and unfair. How can I make it up to you?”
If the person chooses not to accept your apology, that’s on them. But, apologies often set the right tone to calm emotions and find a solution that makes things right.
Many times, a break is all it takes to calm a tense situation. If an argument is going in circles, your stress levels are rising, or you’re finding no way to connect to the other person, it’s probably time to take some time away. A good way to suggest a timeout is by saying, “I think we both need some time away before we find a solution,” or “Can we both take some time to calm down for a moment?”
Many times, the conflict doesn’t need to find a resolution right away, and some time apart can help you both collect yourselves, reset your feelings, and come back to the conversation with a clearer mind.
Usually, this strategy is most effective for conflicts with people you know, such as a coworker or family member. If the person you are dealing with is a stranger, this strategy may mean walking away with no intention to come back to it. In some circumstances, that’s okay if continuing the conversation would only drag out the issue and not lead to anything productive.
A popular conflict resolution strategy is to look for a compromise, and it’s a helpful tactic when dealing with angry people, too. Now that you know where the other person stands, work together to come up with different ways you can resolve the issue. Think about how you can communicate effectively so the other person can understand your point of view and find common ground.
Compromising can be tricky. Make sure you’re willing to give up something too, instead of only expecting the other person to adjust to your stance. This is another strategy that works best with people you know but could be applied in some situations with strangers.
If the angry person is unwilling to compromise or budge on their perspective, you may need to try another tactic.
Of course, you should never stay or continue with an interaction if you feel unsafe. Angry people are not necessarily violent or aggressive people, but you should be empowered to trust your instincts if you feel the situation is starting to veer into unstable territory. A gut feeling is typically a good bet and your own safety should always be the first priority.
If the person seems unable to control their rage or their hostility is making you feel uncomfortable, it’s best to walk away from the situation, either until they calm down or with no intention of going back, depending on the perceived risk.
If there is no other option than to engage with the individual you feel threatened by, be sure to do it in public or with another person present to act as a buffer or mediator. Make sure you also have a plan to leave the situation quickly if things begin to escalate.
Encountering an angry person in your personal or professional life is inevitable. And while dealing with an angry person isn’t easy (or fun), building upon your emotional intelligence can help you read the room better and respond appropriately to defuse any negative feelings. It’s key to not respond in anger, look for a way to calm the frustrated individual, and try to find some common ground so you both can feel better about the situation.
It sounds easy in theory, but managing personalities, circumstances, and different types of anger turns out to be much more complicated in reality. The best way you can learn how to deal with angry people is through practice. However, resolving issues with unhappy or upset people (hopefully) doesn’t come up every day for most people. That’s where extra support through coaching can come in handy.
Consider a coaching program that’s focused on boosting your own emotional intelligence. This will help you better recognize and manage the emotions of yourself and others, so you can improve your interactions with unhappy individuals and find different ways to soothe their anger. You may have a little anxiety about diving deeper into feelings or conflicts and learning how to resolve them, but becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable will make you prepare you to easily handle whatever anger someone shows you in the future.
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