Stuck moment: Man, I hate it when she gets on a righteous anger rant. I never know what to say, and it’s such a waste of energy and time. She’s a great person otherwise, but I’m not sure it’s worth hanging out with her anymore.
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Someone feels wronged, and we get to hear all about it. Uncomfortable!
A natural tendency is to say, “calm down.” Or explain the other side. Maybe we match her angry words with some of our own. Or remain silent. All human responses, but not all that effective. That’s because we’re not acknowledging how the angry person feels, which more than anything will help her calm down.
Think about it:
- If we don’t appear to understand, we risk fueling the fire.
- If we say nothing to avoid conflict, we risk allowing ourselves to be mistreated.
- If we challenge her anger, we risk losing control of our emotions too.
The better we understand the reason she’s angry, the better we can respond to it in a way that suits both parties. Whether we’re trying to stay out of it, help solve it, or find forgiveness, empathy is at the core. We’ve put together six examples that show how different responses can help alleviate an angry situation—each based on how you want to engage:
- YOU DON’T REALLY WANT TO GET INVOLVED
Say this: “I know it’s really upsetting. I’m sorry this happened to you.”
Whatever you think of the situation, this acknowledges someone’s anger and helps him feel heard. Even if you don’t want to get caught up in it, disagree, or don’t really care, he needs some kind of response if the anger is going to pass. You don’t have to take responsibility for what happened or pretend to agree. Let him feel understood. That’s all. Then, you can part ways with a kind statement (“I really have to go, but I hope things get better for you soon.”).
- YOU WANT TO BE SUPPORTIVE
Say this: “You must be furious! What are you going to do about it?”
Even if someone is rightfully upset about a situation, help her avoid dwelling on it (which only amps up the anger) by encouraging her to convert her negative feelings into positive action. Ask her what she’s hoping to get out of it, getting her to consider what she wants to see happen and what she can do. You can also offer your support by letting her know how you’re able to help: “What do you want/need to happen? I can do [this thing] or [that thing] if you’d like.”
- IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT AND YOU WANT HIM TO STOP TAKING IT OUT ON YOU
Say this: “I want to help you, but it’s hard when I feel like I’m being attacked.”
Misplaced anger is usually a sign that (a) he sees you as someone who will sit down and take it, or (b) he trusts you a lot — enough to expect that you’ll forgive him later. If he’s regularly projecting his anger onto you, don’t overlook it. Saying nothing encourages the behavior. Find a way to let him know how he’s making you feel without putting him on the defensive. Using the word “I” rather than “you” is one simple way to do this. And be as calm and patient as you can — he may not realize how he’s acting out — but tell it like it is.
- YOU WANT TO BREAK THROUGH HER SILENT TREATMENT AND GET BACK TO NORMAL
Say this: “I can see something’s wrong. Can we talk about it?”
Confronting passive-aggressiveness is a bit like playing hide-and-seek. You’re not entirely sure what’s causing her to act that way, so there’s a weird sort of uncertainty to overcome. It will probably take a bit of coaxing to unearth the real reason for her anger. She needs to feel safe in expressing how she really feels, so be as relaxed and open as you can in your attitude. Make it obvious that you want to clear up any misunderstanding and make things right between you. That said, sometimes people are looking for an unreasonable level of attention or apology. If she’s not receptive, do your best and then keep your interactions normal — tiptoeing around her will suggest lingering guilt on your part and may stoke more indirect anger on hers.
- YOU WANT HIM TO CALM DOWN BEFORE YOU TALK ABOUT IT
Say this: “I didn’t realize this would upset you so much. Let’s talk about it later.”
Angry people aren’t rational thinkers, so if someone’s immediate response to you is a sudden tirade, give him some space to cool down before you try to reason with him. Meanwhile, remind yourself that his anger isn’t really about you, it’s about him. What is the situation triggering in him deep down? If he lost a business account, does that tap his fear of getting fired? Then you can go back into the conversation with more thoughtful sensitivity than you may have had before. If he insists on continuing the conversation before he’s calmed down, allow him to vent some of the anger before you get back to the original topic of discussion.
- YOU WANT HER TO FORGIVE YOU BECAUSE IT’S YOUR FAULT
Say this: “I’m so sorry I hurt you. Please tell me what I can do to make up for it.”
Forget about defending your position. You’re going to have to apologize and make amends. (Here are some tips on how to give a proper apology.) When people are fired up by hurt feelings, it’s difficult for them to hear reason and accept an apology right away. Help her calm down by letting her vent some of her anger first. Use empathetic statements that take her emotions into account (“That must have felt like a putdown. It was really inconsiderate of me.”), and be accountable for whatever havoc you’ve caused. This means correcting the situation however you can as well as being patient with someone who might be slow to forgive.