A five step framework for

Dealing with Anger

One of the most unpleasant interactions we can have with other people is those where we are dealing with an angry person.
As a professional, it’s often up to you to take this anger and make the situation more positive, but this is far from easy. When we have someone who is angry, we can feel under attack, we can get defensive and even combative.
When we start to explain why it is unreasonable for someone to be angry with you/your organisation we are treading very close to being in an argument and it is very hard to come back from that in any way that either party feels satisfied.
On the other hand, sometimes we feel overwhelmed and become submissive or simply retreat. All these reactions are natural but actually rather counterproductive.

Instead, let’s talk about some alternative strategies we can use to make things go smoother. When dealing with anger there are several steps we can take to calm things down and reach a point where everyone can agree on how to move forward in a productive way.

In the next few sections I will give a few different suggestions for phrases that can be used to help move things to a more positive place, but these are just suggestions, not words to quote verbatim. Every situation is different and the words I would use might not suit your style of talking or the situation in general, so please be fluid and adaptable to the circumstances.

Step One - acknowledgment

First and foremost, it is very helpful to acknowledge that the person you are talking to is angry. There is a power in simply saying what you see. “I can see you’re angry about this” is always a good place to start. This shows that you are taking whatever has happened seriously and that you aren’t dismissing the negative perception of what’s occurred.
It doesn’t mean that you agree that the person is right or that you are accepting any blame, it just shows that you are taking them seriously.

Step Two - apology

Next, it can be very helpful to apologise. Again, this does not mean that you are admitting any fault, it’s just an expression of empathy for someone’s upset. “I’m really sorry you’ve been left feeling like this”. (I go into the importance of an apology in more depth here.)

Step Three - listen

Now the real work starts.
It’s important to let the person know you want to listen and understand what has made them feel this way. If someone has taken the time to come to you because of something that has happened which has made them angry, they have come to you for a reason – they want to tell you why they are angry and find out what you will do about it. That’s their agenda and if you let them know you are here to help them achieve that, things will hopefully go a lot smoother. “I want to understand what’s happened, can you tell me exactly what has led to you feel this way”
Once they have told you what has happened, you need to demonstrate that you have heard their troubles. You can do this with a summary, followed by a question screening for further problems. “Can I just make sure I have understood everything that’s happened, you experienced X, Y and Z, is that right? … Was there anything else?”
What this does is show that you have heard them, that you are aware of the problems and are taking them seriously – that you intend on dealing with the problem. Also, by asking if there is anything else going on, you can be assured that you have the full picture.

Step Four - empathise

Now that you’re both on the same page as to what has happened and why this anger is presenting itself, its time to do something about it. The most important thing to do is to empathise with the situation. Let the person know that you care that they are upset. Once again, saying what you see can be a very useful way to do this. “I can see how frustrated this has left you feeling, now I understand what happened I can appreciate that this is a difficult situation and I’m really sorry for the way this has affected you.” (It never hurts to apologise more than once!)

Step five - negotiate

OK, hopefully by this point the level of anger will have started to come down. We have acknowledged the emotion, we have apologised, we have shown that we are taking the situation seriously and demonstrated that we are listening to what we are being told. Then, most importantly, we have empathised with what the other person has experienced. Now, let’s do something about it!
Negotiating a way forward should now be possible if all has gone well. “This is clearly something that we need to work out, would it be ok for us to talk about what we can do to move forward?” If you have managed to make the other party feel listened to and that you genuinely want to help, they will more than likely say yes to this suggestion. If however, they do not, simply move back a few steps and keep laying that groundwork.

Now, it’s over to you.

I can’t tell you how to deal with each and every situation you might face, but by using this framework you can hopefully progress the discussion.

Bonus Tips
there are some other tools you can use throughout your discussion which don’t fit into any particular step above as they should be used throughout the conversation.

Stay Calm! Don’t let your emotions get the better of you. If you get angry then that is only going to fuel the general anger in the room. It is vital to stay calm and guide the person you are talking to into a calmer state of mind.

Use their name. Every phrase I have put in quote marks above could be prefaced with the person’s name to help build a rapport that will make it harder for someone to be angry with you.

Watch your body language. Try and keep an open posture, don’t cross your arms, don’t look defensive or combative. Doing so will give the impression that you are ready for a fight over this. Try and avoid that.

Stay safe! OK, with everything that I have said above, there are going to be times when it just doesn’t work. This is a guide, it’s not a guarantee. There will be times that, for whatever reason, someone’s anger isn’t logical. If at any point you feel unsafe in the situation you find yourself faced with, get out or ask for help! At the end of the day, you need to stay safe. 

I do honestly believe that by using the steps above, you’ll find that you will have a high level of success when dealing with anger.

Please feel free to discuss your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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