Please note: The following article deals only with those exhibiting non-violent and non-abusive anger. If you’re dealing with abuse in any form, please seek help immediately!
Tia stood in her kitchen, facing her boyfriend, listening to him yell at her. This is all your fault! How many times have I told you not to do that?”
She loved Roberto, but she had grown tired of defending herself every time he got angry with her. Her counselor had helped her consider better ways of responding, but she wasn’t sure she could keep herself from screaming back this time.
If you’ve ever faced someone’s ire up-close and personal, you know it can be unpleasant. Like Tia, you might feel compelled to respond with anger yourself. Maybe you’re hurt, intimidated, or afraid. Perhaps you’re taken off guard and stunned by the outburst, not really knowing how to react.
Facing someone else’s anger can add stress to your life, even if the anger isn’t always directed at you. And if you are often the target, frequent conflict creates a stormy relationship between the two of you. Regardless of the specific situation, it’s best to have a plan for dealing with another person’s anger.
When Skies are Clear
If you regularly face another person’s anger, it’s important to address the problem during peaceful times.
Depending on your personality type, discussing the anger might take some determination and resolve. After all, it’s difficult to broach an unpleasant topic, especially when things are going well at the moment. You may be risking the person’s anger again by bringing it up, and of course the possibility might fill you with a sense of dread. But if you approach the situation properly, it might go better than you expect.
- Select a Proper Time. Pick a time when the person is in a good mood and when the two of you are on good terms. Resist the temptation to begin the conversation too soon after the latest row. If a recent argument is still fresh, you might end up with a repeat rather than a general conversation about anger. On the other hand, talking soon after an argument might work well if the other person comes to you expressing feelings of regret. After an outburst, for example, Shane’s wife often comes to him an hour or two later with sincere apologies. That might be a good time for Shane to talk to her about her problem.
- Don’t accuse. Make it your goal to help, not to condemn. Many people already recognize the need to take more control over their anger. There’s no point in assigning guilt or in taking a “holier-than-thou” attitude, “I can’t believe you cursed like that in ear-shot of the children!” Such statements will defeat your purpose. Instead…
- Show Your Concern. Broach the topic as a general concern for that person, or in terms of how it affects you. For example, you might remind your husband, “I really worry about your blood pressure when you get so angry.” Or, “When you yell at me, I feel afraid that you don’t love me as much.”
- Avoid Starting Things Again. During the conversation, avoid bringing up a particular issue or situation that made the person angry, unless she specifically mentions it. If much of the anger has been directed at you, you can emphasize the fact that you never mean to irritate her on purpose. You can also remind the person that you’re willing to help her avoid future outbursts by helping to solve problems beforehand.
Dispersing the Clouds
When you see anger on the horizon, you might be able to avoid the storm if you know the person well enough.
Tony’s wife is a firebrand. But he knows what makes her angry and often uses humor to soothe her ruffled feathers. When he inadvertently offended her during dinner one evening, he immediately turned his comment into a joke. It took a few moments, but he soon had his wife laughing instead of fuming.
You might also be able to divert the anger by changing the subject. When Derrick asked his dad for money, he detected trouble right away in his dad’s facial expression, “Well, I’m not sure I really need it…,” Derrick said quickly, “You can decide later. But I need to ask you something else even more important about school….”
Suggesting another activity might work, as well, “Honey, let’s go for a walk before we discuss this anymore.”
In the Midst of the Storm
Even if you know the person well, you can’t foresee every instance that will set him off. And diversion won’t work in many instances. So what can you do when you’re facing full-blown anger? How can you help someone else deal with it?
1. Control yourself. Resolve that you will not respond by mirroring the other person’s behavior. “Responding to anger with anger rarely accomplishes anything positive,” writes Dr. Alex Lickerman, general internist and author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, “If you remain in control of yourself…you have a real chance to help [the person] deal with the real issue that triggered their anger in the first place.”
Consider the following tips for remaining calm:
- If you feel stressed, try breathing slowly and deeply, suggests Elvira G. Aletta, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of Explore What’s Next, psychotherapy and life coaching services.
- Try not to view yourself as a victim but as one who might be able to help.
- Try to get outside of the situation mentally. Think beyond the moment. Instead of focusing on the angry words, you might tell yourself, He’ll calm down later and we’ll be able to discuss it then.
- Imagine what might be underlying the person’s outburst. For example, Mr. Crouch is probably in a lot of pain today. Or, I know Steven is facing a lot of stress at home.
- Try a little compassion. It may seem odd, but remember that the person losing control has a problem—at least at the moment. Compassion doesn’t mean you condone the behavior. It means you want to help that person overcome his destructive behavior. You want to see him happy and dealing with anger appropriately so he can enjoy life.
2. Listen. If you can control yourself, you’ll not only keep the situation from escalating but you’ll also be better able to listen. It’s tempting sometimes to give advice immediately, especially when you’re not the target of the anger. You want to help. But most people don’t want to hear platitudes, sage advice or psychology lessons when they’re angry. They usually do want to be heard, however. (Think about times when you’re angry. You just want the problem to be solved, the error to be corrected, or justice to be done, right?)
If the person isn’t hurting anyone or anything, let him vent for a few minutes. It may be difficult to hold your tongue, especially if you disagree with him. But try not to say anything at first. Simply acknowledge his feelings and let him know that you hear what he’s saying.
Occasionally, the chance to vent might be sufficient. Lana’s husband, for example, often walks in from work ranting over his co-worker’s latest foul-up. Lana knows there’s nothing she can do to make him feel any better about it or to fix the situation, aside from listening. So that is all she does. By the time she’s made him a cup of coffee, he’s usually finished. He gives her a hug,“You didn’t want to hear all that,” he says, “but thanks for listening.”
3. Understand the anger. Sometimes people need more than a listening ear. They need to know that someone understands their situation. Think about your own experience. Although it doesn’t take away the reason for your anger, it somehow alleviates your agitation when you know that someone understands why you are upset.
If you really don’t understand why the person is angry, ask him or her to clarify the reasons. Just showing that you want to understand, without judging, will show support. Asking the person to explain or clarify, writes Lickerman, will also “help them turn their anger into language,” rather than destructive behavior.
If you don’t believe the anger is justified, you can still show that you realize the facts of the situation. Try summarizing what the person has said to make sure you really know what happened.
4. Sympathize. If possible, go one step beyond understanding and show a little sympathy, “Wow, I can’t believe she said that. I would be angry, too.” Make a real effort to imagine yourself in the other’s position.
Some people need clear validation of their opinions and feelings. Am I wrong? Don’t you think I have a right to be angry? Am I overreacting? When someone asks these sorts of questions, you have the perfect opportunity to express your sympathy.
Expressing your own sympathetic anger along with the person is even more effective. This doesn’t mean that you should start shouting or turning on the melodrama. (Remember: you’re trying to exhibit control!) But if you can truly share the person’s anger, then show your solidarity.
Lickerman actually suggests getting angrier than the person, “Transform yourself from the object of their anger into their partner in feeling the same anger as they.”
Even when you don’t think anger is justified, remember that you can’t change how that person feels. He is still angry, regardless of your opinion, and telling him that you disagree probably won’t help. So, if you can’t really sympathize, then don’t. But you can…
5. Offer to help. As Aletta advises, don’t feel as if you must fix the situation. But when you offer your help, it shows your support and might help the angry person refocus her energies on solving the problem. Imagine your wife comes home from a long day of teaching, enraged about the new rules the school has imposed on the employees. Once you’ve listened and sympathized, you might offer to take her out. Over dinner, discuss how she and her fellow teachers could protest the new regulations.
6. Offer perspective. Perhaps nothing can be done to alleviate the reason for the anger. Maybe your son stormed into your office disputing your spouse’s decision not to let him drive the family car to a rock concert. You listen to his rant, while supporting your spouse in the decision. The situation isn’t going to change, but you can try to help him gain some perspective. “Your father’s trying to make the best decisions for everyone; he isn’t punishing you.” You might remind him that, a year from now, he will have his own car and he’ll be more in charge of his own life. Next year at this time, he probably won’t even care about this concert. Your son probably won’t get over his anger immediately. But having a new way to look at things will likely help him deal with it later.
When Lightening Strikes
Imagine an irate customer bursts into the restaurant where you work, shouting at you and demanding his money back on a take-out order. You’re the host and have nothing to do with take-out orders. The first thing you want to do is to defend yourself, right? “Hey, stop yelling at me! I didn’t fill the order! Go back to the take-out window!” You’re angry and an argument ensues.
When someone expresses inappropriate anger toward you, it takes more effort to deal with the situation. But remember that, most of the time, angry responses from you will only escalate matters. (Review the tips for controlling yourself.)
- Are you guilty?
When you try to see the situation from the angry person’s perspective, you might agree that she did have a valid reason for being angry. In that case, offer a sincere apology. Maintaining a defensive attitude won’t help. Admit your guilt, ask for forgiveness, and try to move on.
- Apologize anyway.
Even if you feel you’ve done nothing wrong, you can still say, “I’m sorry if I have made you angry. I certainly didn’t mean to make you feel this way.” Or, in the case above, you might say, “Sir, I’m really sorry someone messed up your order. Let me help get this corrected right away.”
- Inside voices!
When you’re confronted by someone shouting, respond with a calm voice. Aletta notes that “a whisper can often be a bigger attention getter than yelling.” Let the person explain the problem. Listen and try to understand.
If shouting continues, tell him that you can’t listen while he’s yelling. Ask him calmly to talk in a normal voice. Then show by your facial expressions that you sincerely want to understand him. If he insists on yelling, even after you’ve asked him not to, you can say, “I’m going to leave the room. We’ll have to discuss this when you’re calm.” And then quietly leave.
- Toughen up.
Above all, writes Aletta, protect your self-esteem. Don’t take the anger personally or let it make you feel less than you are. Lickerman agrees. If you haven’t wronged that person, he says, then he or she is either trying to control you or to make you feel small. “You must tell yourself that anger is their strategy and has nothing to do with you at all….”
- When love’s at stake.
In a marriage or other romantic relationship, you have a right to demand respect, says Steven Stosny, Ph.D., author, educator, consultant, and founder of CompassionPower. When anger becomes a problem, Stosny advocates presenting the issue as something you will work on together. Discuss with your partner the necessity of mutual understanding, respect, and value in the relationship. He believes that your partner will not improve without a greater sense of compassion for you. “…the most compassionate thing for you to do,” he writes, “is insist that he or she treat you with the value and respect you deserve, if you are to stay in the relationship.”
Responding calmly takes great self-control and practice. So if you’ve tried and failed, don’t give up. Be willing to patch things up and try again, especially if anger is a problem for your spouse, a friend, a co-worker, or another important person in your life. Everyone has faults. Your determination to maintain self-control and a calm demeanor in the midst of the anger storm can be quite effective. Keep trying.
As much as Tia wanted to shout back and defend herself, she forced herself to speak in a quiet voice, “Roberto,” she said, “I don’t understand. Why are you so mad at me?”
Roberto slammed his fist on the counter and continued to shout, “I can’t believe you, Tia!” He continued to rant about what she had done and then stopped, “Well? Why aren’t you saying anything?” he shouted.
“I didn’t mean to make you mad,” she said quietly.
Roberto still looked agitated, but he’d stopped shouting. It was a start....
If you’re ever facing physical violence or verbal abuse, try to escape your situation to safety and get professional help immediately.
___________________Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg–––––––––––––––––––––- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -Part 1:
To Be or Not to Be...AngryPart 2:
When Anger BackfiresPart 3:
Solving the Anger Problem
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