When someone is angry, our instinctive reaction typically is to get defensive (if the person is angry at us) or to give advice (if he/she is angry at someone else). These responses are not useful—they do not resolve the situation and even may inflame him further. More effective…
WHEN YOU ARE NOT THE TARGET
The best way to calm someone who is angry at someone else is to let him vent. Don’t interrupt or tell him why he shouldn’t be angry or that he should let it go. Don’t talk about the time you got mad about the same thing—this implies that your reaction is more important than his.
When he has talked himself out, acknowledge his feelings—whether or not you agree with his views.
Example: “Wow, you’re really angry with your boss. I can see how upset you are.”
After listening and acknowledging, ask if there is any way you can help. In many cases, the other person will say that you have helped just by listening. You also might be able to assist with brainstorming and problem solving. But if you try to solve the problem before hearing the person out or without his approval, he most likely will feel angrier.
WHEN THE ANGER IS DIRECTED AT YOU
When someone lashes out at you, the primitive part of your brain is activated. This creates the impulse to defend yourself from attack by telling the other person he is wrong or irrational or by getting angry yourself.
Instead, before responding, pause for a few moments and silently ask yourself four questions…
- Is this situation important?
- Is my reaction appropriate?
- Is the situation modifiable?
- If so, is taking action worth it?
To remember the four questions when you are under stress, use the partial acronym I AM WORTH IT. I stands for Important… AM stands for Appropriate and Modifiable… WORTH IT, of course, stands for the last question.
If the answer to all four questions is “yes,” then assert yourself by telling the person…
- Exactly what he is doing.
- How it makes you feel.
- What, specifically, you would like him to do differently.
Keep your voice fairly quiet and your tone neutral. Describe behavior, not motives or personal characteristics.
Example: My wife used this technique when I came home in a bad mood at the end of a tough day. Virginia was preparing dinner. On the kitchen counter was a big stack of mail-order catalogs that she had promised to look through a few days earlier. I snapped, “What are these damn catalogs doing here?”
Virginia didn’t say a word for about 20 seconds. Then she replied calmly, “Redford, you just walked into the kitchen and said, ‘What are these damn catalogs doing here?’’ (She told me what I had done.) I came home early to make dinner, and now, I am feeling hurt, unappreciated and, frankly, angry at you. (She told me how it made her feel.) Would it be possible for you to come home at the end of the day and not have the first words out of your mouth be something critical?” (What she would like me to do.)
I turned around, walked out of the kitchen, came back in and said, “Mmm, smells good. What’s for supper?”
When I first arrived home, Virginia could have fueled an argument by snapping back, “What’s the matter with you, coming home and criticizing me?” Instead, during those 20 seconds of silence, she asked herself the four questions. Then she made a specific observation and a request for change.
If you need to respond to an angry outburst in a setting where expressing personal feelings is not appropriate—for example, at work—use a results-oriented word, such as “helpful.”
Example: “Bill, you just told me that my marketing idea for the new product is the stupidest thing you ever heard. I need to let you know that calling my suggestion stupid isn’t helpful. If you could give me some of the reasons you think it won’t work, I’d appreciate it.”
If your answer to any of the four I AM WORTH IT questions gets a “no”—focus on controlling your reaction. Don’t say anything to the person. Instead, if the situation isn’t important or can’t be changed, say to yourself, “Hey, it’s not that important,” or “There’s nothing I can do to change this guy.” If requesting change isn’t appropriate or worth it, you can distract yourself by thinking about something pleasant or doing something else… or by taking a few deep breaths and thinking the word “calm” as you inhale and “down” as you exhale. This is not the same as passively giving in. You are evaluating the situation and making a rational decision.