5 Jul 2023

How to defuse anger

As we read reports of unseemly barracking and tussles in the hallowed Long Room at Lord's (fallout over a controversial dismissal in the Ashes test match, which was deemed by many not to be in “the spirit of cricket”), we have been contemplating the whole issue of defusing anger. The cricketing world is reeling from the repercussions from a very rare event, but anger is a frequent challenge in everyday life and in the workplace.

If you are confronted by an angry person – whether they’re a client, a partner, friend or colleague – it’s easy to feel upset and flustered. Regardless of the reason for their anger, it’s a common reaction to respond in kind, which escalates the situation needlessly. It is a far better idea to stay calm, to attempt to understand the reasons for their emotion, and to do your best to acknowledge and resolve the problem.

Recognising anger can be difficult, since many people do not display it openly, resorting instead to passive-aggression, which you will need to detect. Look out for these telltale signs:

• A disengaged and distant demeanour

• A refusal to respond to requests and questions

• Sulking and withdrawing

• A tense and taut facial expression: a forced, tight-lipped smile

• Secretive behaviour

• Lack of eye contact

How to Deal with Angry People

Whether you are faced with someone who is volatile and enraged, or dealing with someone who is displaying all the signs of passive-aggression, your strategies should essentially be the same:

• Assess the situation: if you feel the person is completely out of control and judge their behaviour to be threatening enlist the help of other people. Do not deal with the situation on your own.

• You need to stay composed in these circumstances, so practise techniques such as deep breathing to calm yourself down. If you feel reciprocal anger is beginning to build – a common occurrence since anger is a very contagious emotion – take a break and reassess the situation.

• You must understand the reasons for a person’s anger. In the case of someone who is behaving passive-aggressively, this may involve asking delicate, probing questions (“you don’t seem yourself this morning, is something wrong?”). Once you begin to unpick the reasons for anger, you may well find that the emotion has nothing directly to do with you – it might well have been caused by stress or emotional overload. It is much easier to cope with someone’s anger if you can distance yourself from it emotionally, so try and understand the reasons at the outset.

• Don’t dismiss the anger. You may feel that the angry person is suffering from a massive overreaction, and that their rage is quite unconscionable, but saying something like “I really don’t see what you’re getting so worked up about” is liable to have explosive consequences. Instead, acknowledge the emotion: “I can see that you’re very angry”, which is the first step towards understanding the rage and defusing it.

• Once you have understood the cause of the anger, you need to establish the exact nature of the grievances. If somebody says, “Nobody takes any notice of me in this office”, for example, this is a generic assertion of a problem. You will need to drill down, ask questions, and you will probably find that specific instances of neglect or disregard lie at the root of the outburst. Listen carefully and empathetically and – no matter how much you may disagree with what is being said – do not interrupt the speaker; this is a red rag to a bull, demonstrating that they are not being given the attention they deserve.

• When it is your turn to speak, remember to keep calm. Consciously lower your voice, speak slowly and adopt neutral, non-threatening body language (no leaning forward, using aggressive hand gestures, thrusting your face towards the other person, invading their personal space). Avoid bland, clichéd statements like “I know how you feel” or “I understand your anger”. Instead, make direct reference to what has been said, demonstrating through reiteration that you have truly been listening. For example, saying “so you feel that I didn’t give you space to speak in yesterday’s meeting?” is much more effective than saying “That sounds frustrating”.

• If you profoundly disagree with what the angry person is saying and feel that their rage is based on misunderstandings, paranoia, or misplaced arrogance, now is not the time to point this out – you will simply escalate the situation. You will need to address their misunderstandings, but for the time being park the discussion. Say something like “Thank you so much for explaining that to me. I think we really do need to sit down and find a way forward, but let’s not do that when emotions are running high.” Follow through on that promise and schedule a meeting or a time when you can re-visit the discussion.

• Offer a solution. Once you understand the anger, and providing you acknowledge that it is legitimate, you should come back with a positive suggestion. In some cases, you will understand the reason for the emotion, see what has caused it and be able to instantly promise that this will never happen again. But all too often the situation is not so cut and dried; you may feel the person is flying off the handle, or that a colleague, friend etc may have been traduced. In cases like this, you will have to offer a more conditional solution, which promises that efforts will be made to understand and avoid future occurrences: “I understand that you felt we were overly dismissive of your suggestions. I’ll talk to the team about this and in future we’ll make sure we give you more time and space…”

• Apologise, even if you’re doing it on somebody else’s behalf. If your behaviour has caused the outburst, then it is obvious that you must apologise. But even if this is not the case, you can still offer an apology, which acknowledges that person’s pain: “I’m so sorry Bill made you feel that way etc etc”. Whatever the source, an apology will go a long way towards mollifying an angry person.

• Address the anger. If somebody is much given to intemperate outbursts of rage, or is an inveterate passive-aggressive sulker, it can have an extremely harmful effect on relationship dynamics. In this instance, it would be a good idea to address the behaviour (though wait until a moment of comparative calm). Do not approach the person with anger issues in an accusatory way, but instead emphasise the negative impact their behaviour has on both you and other people. So avoid statements that begin with “you”, eg “when you start yelling and screaming you terrify the junior team members” and try to frame it from a first-person perspective: “I really find it uncomfortable seeing how terrified the junior team members are when they have to confront shouting and yelling.”

As always, use good manners as a tool to disarm and mediate. Your mantra should be to always remain polite, whatever the provocation, and you will find that civility and courtesy will go a long way towards alleviating potentially explosive situations.

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