Everyone has been around someone who is angry. The common response to this type of threat is to freeze, flee or fight. Those actions are instinctive, but often not the most helpful. Here are some tips for dealing with a person who is upset.
Of course, if the angry person could be violent, you should take immediate action to preserve your safety and those around you – this may involve leaving the premises and calling the authorities.
Match the person. At least, at first, mirror the person’s body posture, tone of voice and even, to some extent their emotion. If they are angry, you can sound a little upset too. If they are weeping, don’t be afraid to let yourself connect with your sadness too. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but think about it: When you are really angry or anxious or grieving, how do you feel when somebody softly and calmly says, “Now calm down. . . you don’t need to get all worked up about this.”
Do you feel understood? No way. You feel like that person is out of sync with your world. You might even react by saying, “What do you MEAN, CALM DOWN??? I have every right to be angry, don’t you get that??”
So when someone is raging, you could come up and say something like, “Whoa, man! This looks really intense around here! What’s going down?” Suddenly they will likely see you have an ally, that really “gets it.”
Sit or stand parallel. Don’t go face-to-face with someone who is dysregulated. Instead of confronting them eyeball to eyeball, try to align yourself so you are side by side as if you were part of a team rather than an enemy combatant. If being next to the person feels uncomfortable, at least position yourself at an angle. Then talk about the problem as if it is “out there” in front of both of you, rather than inside either of you.
Take a “one down” position. If someone is angry (and you are reasonably sure they aren’t violent) don’t hesitate to be the first one to sit down on a chair. If they are sitting on a chair, consider sitting on the floor. With a child, kneel down, to at least get at their eye level. This body language says, “I’m no threat to you. I’m not preparing to attack you.”
Breathe deeply, slowly. Breathing is the one activity modulated by your primitive brain that you have some conscious control over. Most of us can’t control our temperature, heart-rate, or the amount of cortisol pouring into our body, but we CAN slow our breathing. This simple act of breathing with our diaphragm in a deep, relaxed, and slow manner, activates the parasympathetic nervous system which, in effect, puts the brakes on all the hyperarousal systems that make anger feel out of control. While it would be ideal for the angry person to breathe in this way, it is useful for them to see YOU breathing in a deep, slow and relaxed way. Relaxation can be contagious because it is detected by our brains on a subconscious level.
The “turtle blink.” See if you can practice blinking your eyes very slowly, almost as if you were going to sleep. This is a subconscious cue for observers to relax because you, visually, appear relaxed. Contrast this slow-motion blinking with rapid blinking, or worse, eyes wide with fright or alarm. The former action invites relaxation while the latter actions instill tension.
Listen, Listen, Listen. Let them know you are interested in what is upsetting them. Don’t pressure them unduly, but say something like, “I wanna be here for you. I’m interested in what’s going on for you right now.” If they don’t want to talk, respect that. You can leave the door open by saying, “If later is better, I’ll listen then, too.”
Elicit feelings instead of facts. Too often, people who are upset become fixated on a recital of events, facts, and wrongs. They get stuck rehearsing the triggers that set them off which continues to anger them. You can get them to talk about their feelings and then soothe those emotions rather than trying to contradict facts. (See my blog post on Empathy for more detail.)
For instance, you could say, “It looks really tough for you right now. And you are really steamed. . . .what else is going on for you?” or “You’ve gotta be feeling really mad about this. . . It looks like you are really torqued.” Then just let them respond and elaborate. When a person can put words to their feelings, it often gives them a sense of control. And it gives you a chance to validate their feelings and help them to return to baseline. “I can understand how you would feel that way,” or, “That makes sense to feel angry when that happens,” you could say. You aren’t agreeing with them, but you are validating they have a point of view that isn’t crazy.
Change their focus. Researchers have found that once a person becomes physiologically aroused with anger that they will likely need 20 minutes to return to a normal state of being. So don’t rush the process. Meanwhile, offer to go on a walk with them. Or make them a cup of tea. Play fetch with a dog and pet it a lot. Take them on a drive and listen to their favorite music. Get a soda at a drive thru. If you are closer to them, you can offer to rub their shoulders or neck. Give them a hand massage. Or get a cool cloth for their forehead. Give them a hug. Encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply with you.
So the next time you are dealing with an angry person, you will have more tools to influence them. Of course, if you are feeling unsafe, you must take action to create safety for yourself, and that may include fleeing the scene or calling the authorities. If the person has a pattern of habitual explosive anger, you may need to rethink your relationship. If they won’t get professional intervention, you may need to disengage. But in other circumstances, use these ideas and see if it doesn’t help the situation.