You accidentally ran your lawn mower over your neighbor’s flowerbed or cut in front of a stranger in a line. Now here this person is, right up in your face, screaming curses and shaking his fist at you. He’s so infuriated that you actually feel a bit afraid…and now you’re starting to get angry yourself. What should you do?
To find out how to handle situations in which you’re faced with another person’s fury, I spoke with Harvard psychiatrist Joseph Shrand, MD, author of Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion. He outlined a number of key steps for dealing with other people’s rage. Of course, if you feel you may be in physical danger, you should get away from the person immediately, he said, and possibly even call 911.
Fortunately, most situations won’t be that dramatic because the other person won’t seem irrational or aggressive, just hugely pissed off. That’s where following your instincts could be wrong—because most people react to another’s anger either by yelling back (which only escalates the conflict, tipping it toward the danger zone)…or by giving the enraged person whatever he wants (which means your rights are trampled by a bully).
Better solution: Try the seven-step technique that Dr. Shrand developed, which centers on showing respect for the other person while also respecting yourself. “When we demonstrate respect, we have an enormous opportunity to defuse the other person’s rage,” Dr. Shrand said. It’s easy to remember the seven steps by using the acronym RESPECT…
RECOGNIZE RAGE. Rage is an extreme form of anger. When you’re confronted by someone who is getting agitated or yelling, consciously pause and remember this important definition of anger, Dr. Shrand said: Anger is an emotion designed to change the behavior of someone else. Then say to yourself, Whoa, this guy is really angry. What does he want to be different? I need to think about how to handle this before I get sucked into his vortex of rage. This gives your brain a chance to get into a logical gear—before your limbic system, which is the source of the fight-or-flight response, takes over and pushes you toward a rash fight or a doormat flight response.
ENVISION ENVY. Anger often comes hand-in-hand with envy. The other person wants something you have. Ask yourself what that could be. Maybe you have a bigger house, a nicer spouse, a wider circle of friends or a more successful career. Knowing that envy contributes to anger helps you understand how a seemingly minor conflict may assume great significance in the other person’s mind. For instance, your neighbor might be thinking that his house looks dinky enough compared with yours without you destroying his landscaping, too…the stranger you cut in front of in line might have overheard you on your cell phone saying “I love you” to your partner and feel envious because he’s alone.
SENSE SUSPICION. The angry person may suspect that you are out to get him (mowing down his prized flowerbed or cutting in front of him on purpose), and that makes him feel devalued and disrespected. Whether or not his suspicions have the slightest basis in fact doesn’t really matter. What’s going to help you handle the situation appropriately is to understand that he does feel suspicious…and what’s going to help to dispel those suspicions is for you to take responsibility for your actions. It’s fine to explain that what happened was an accident, but don’t try to wriggle out of whatever blame really is yours.
PROJECT PEACE. Make a conscious effort not to let yourself go crazy in reaction to his rage. First take a deep breath and inwardly remind yourself, I don’t care what horrible thing he is saying, I am not going to react in kind. Then respond in a calm, neutral yet compassionate voice, letting the other person know that you are not there as an antagonist, but rather as someone who wants to help resolve a problem. Dr. Shrand said, “Yes, you’ll feel angry or frightened on the inside—but try not to show that on the outside. Instead, project an air of calm as you say, ‘You look really angry. What’s going on? How can I help?’”
ENGAGE EMPATHY. Don’t make light of the problem. Even if you consider the matter relatively trivial, it is clearly important to the other person—and you want your words to reflect that. Example: “I’m terribly sorry about your flowerbed. I understand how upsetting this is for you. I’ve seen you out there every day taking such good care of those plants! I was just sick when I realized what I had accidently done with the mower.” Your empathy makes the other person feel valued, Dr. Shrand said—and that makes it harder for him to stay angry at you.
COMMUNICATE CLEARLY. Try to focus the conversation on the facts, being very clear and concrete about what you are proposing. “I ran over six plants. You would like me to pay to have a professional landscape architect replant the entire bed of 30 plants. I think it would be fair for me to personally replace the six I cut down plus six more on the other side to maintain the symmetry of the flowerbed. I can do the work next Saturday. Do we have an agreement?”
TRADE THANKS. Wrap up the conversation with a word of appreciation—“Thanks, Joe, for being such an understanding neighbor”…or “Thank you for pointing out the end of the line to me—my head was in the clouds.” Dr. Shrand said, “When we thank someone, we communicate our belief in that person’s value, altruism and importance. This conveys that the person does not need to be angry, envious or suspicious.” Ideally, the other person will thank you in turn…but even if that doesn’t happen, your respectful behavior reinforces the idea that a calm approach is the best way to resolve a conflict.