How to deal with angry people

If you are uncomfortable around angry people, don’t know what to do or say when other people express anger, are quick to avoid angry people, or become desperately eager to change the subject when the tone of the situation shifts to anger- then this blog post is for you.

First, if someone is very angry with you it is usually helpful if they are direct in their expression of their anger. It is much harder to address and solve problems when people are angry but will go out of their way to minimize, avoid, diminish, or deny that they are upset. When you know exactly what is in front of you, you will be able to figure out what you can and cannot do about it.

If someone is willing to be direct in their expression of anger, first try to simply understand what it is they are saying. This can be extremely difficult because if your integrity is threatened (or if you feel under attack) you will likely come across as guarded and defensive. It is hard to listen attentively and try to get accurate facts when emotional arousal is high. Conversations with angry people can be difficult, but if you can get through them skillfully you will be better equipped to navigate emotionally charged situations in the future.

Try to them to clarify what it is they expect, want, or anticipate happening. It is sometimes the case that people who are expressing anger are so emotional that they are not at all clear about what they want, what they expect, or what it is they are asking. If you are being attacked or criticized, try to diminish personal attacks and guide them towards stating their intentions or desires clearly. If personal attacks continue, you may want to suggest revisiting the conversation when they are done attacking you and are ready to work on problem solving.

Skills for clarification and understanding might include 1) summarizing what they are saying 2) asking them for correction or clarification 3) being willing to let them clarify or correct you. See if there is anything that might make sense from their point of view despite holding a different point of view. This may take multiple tries- and you may need to repeat these skills frequently throughout any one conversation.

Consider the intensity of emotional arousal. If a person feels as if someone is taking them seriously, listening, and working to understand them; their arousal will likely go down. When arousal is low enough for problem solving, then problem solving is much easier!

Next, realistically assess what can and cannot be changed and address the consequences. What can you possibly do to accommodate their request? What might you be willing to do differently? If you are a parent, supervisor, or other person in authority it is possible that you will not be able or willing to accommodate their request. Be honest and realistic with what you can and cannot do. Be gentle in laying out the facts for them. If they are still having difficulty accepting your decision, you may want to acknowledge disappointment, help them work on acceptance or alternative solutions, or encourage them to solve the problem differently. By doing this, you are showing that you are attentive to their concerns, care about the relationship itself, and can possibly be a resource when future conflicts occur. Hopefully you will have navigated an emotionally charged interaction without avoiding it, openly explored what could and could not be changed, and demonstrated that strong emotions can be tolerated without destroying the relationship.