By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Last time I wrote on the 8 unproductive ways people often respond to irate people, and how these approaches fall short. This time I want to offer my take on the 8 effective ways to respond to irate people.
- Walk Away
If you aren’t cornered or physically threatened by the person, just leave. And then process your emotions with someone safe and healthy, to help you to shake it off and return to equilibrium.
- Take a Time Out
If this is an individual that you have a relationship with, you could ask for a time out and explain that you would like some time for you both to step away and allow the intensity to wane some before returning to the subject matter.
- Change the Subject
When you identify that the person is beyond reasonable discussion, you could suggest that you don’t seem to be getting anywhere and how about you talk about something else. However, many who have “lost it” often become even more incensed by a suggestion of this kind. So, in the best interest of the person and of you, what about just changing the subject without asking them? I know this seems strange and in fact, that is the value of it. By putting the other person into a strange situation, it actually, even briefly, shifts their focus, and has the potential to cause their ire to subside a bit. The distraction has the power to bring them back to rationality – sometimes.
- Validate Their Emotions
Often times the irate person has perceived a violation of some kind and they have felt threatened. This is their conditioned way of protecting themselves, even if it is not very effective, it is what they know. So, learn to not get into the details of the issue, but instead focus on the person’s emotions and begin by acknowledging their emotion and validating it, instead of attacking it. Often, angry people get told to tone it down or turn off their anger. Not helpful. What you want to do is something like, “I see that you are rather upset about…” Then, to validate it looks something like this, “I get that you are angry about…”, or “Yes, I agree that what happened was not fair.”, or, “I can see how you would take it the way you did and end up frustrated.”
- Ask Them Probing Questions
We probably pretty often don’t want to interact with an angry person. A lot of people are uncomfortable with conflict, and either wish the whole thing would go away, or at least that the person calm down before bringing the issue up. But, what if you are the one to help them to calm down (without telling them to calm down, that is)? You can help yourself by helping them in this matter. You do this by seeking more information and not trying to run away. Ask about what happened and ask them about their perceptions. Ask about what they had expected, as expectations are often behind our anger. If you get them to talk about it and process their perceptions, they may come back to rationality. And you will have strengthened the relationship as well as your confidence and developed yourself in personal maturity.
- Find Something to Own
If you are being attacked by someone, of course one strong tendency is to defend ourselves. That makes sense. But a more effective and mature strategy is to be able to look past their angry stance and consider the content of what is being presented. Maybe it’s just an irrational person attacking you (and it’s really about their issue)? But, sometimes people do have reasons for getting mad at us, right?! What if we listened to what is brought to us and were able to own, even partially, the grievance? Do you think that might help the angry person to come down from their level 10 of anger? And from there you can both maybe discuss things more rationally. And maybe they will then be able to own their behavior with you as well.
- Confront Them
Part 1 of this short series addressed some of the most ineffective ways to handle someone’s irate behaviors, and a number of them were attempts to confront the person. However, I don’t want you to draw the conclusion that confronting is all bad or wrong or ineffective. Confrontation of someone’s inappropriate or hurtful behaviors absolutely needs to be included in a list of productive strategies to handle these situations. There’s just a really big difference in terms of how you go about it! If you will notice from the list in part 1, the negative approaches that were confronting in nature were motivated by getting the irate person to stop or back down. Irate people are not going to be calmly consider that they should back down or apologize and many will not be quelled by someone’s powering up on them. They are emotionally flooded and will be lacking in their ability to thoughtfully consider anything. The goal of effective confrontation is to get the person to come back to rationality so they can see and take responsibility for their own behaviors. Using some of the approaches outlined here can help you to get the person to a better place emotionally so that can be possible. Then, what you can do is to ask them questions about their behaviors that bring them to see the hurtfulness of their actions. Maybe something like, “What do you think it would have been like to be on the receiving end of your attack?” or “How do you feel about how you expressed yourself?”
- Expressing Firm Boundaries
There of course will be times when all approaches falls short with an irate person. I have encouraged you to continue to care and have empathy for the angry person, but you still have to protect yourself, which is what numbers 1 and 2 are about. And in fact, walking away and taking a time out are expressions of personal boundaries. But you can also express your boundaries with the person in a verbal manner.
Personal boundaries are the invisible boundaries lines around our personhood. Everything inside us is ours; our thoughts, our feelings, our ideas and opinions and dreams and hopes and all that goes on in our mind and heart. People step over our boundaries when they try to control or change or undermine or shame what is inside us. Going all irate on us would certainly qualify.
Having a firm boundary with them could look like this: “When you called me names and yelled at me I felt belittled and disrespected and I did not appreciate it. If you need to take a time out I understand, but I would like you to refrain from the yelling and name calling. If you do not I will remove myself.”
There is much more that could be said in the utilization of personal boundaries. And the goal in the application of boundaries is not specifically to get the other to stop. Boundaries are about you protecting yourself and respecting yourself. We can do that at all time even if others will not.
There are endless applications of the approaches outlined here, and you will need to apply yourself to discern what approaches fit the situations you find yourself in. But you will certainly benefit from the practice.
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Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.