Three Ways to Deal with an Angry Person


How do you like dealing with an angry person?

If you’re like most of the people I know, you hate it. And, you occasionally have to do it.

While some people seem to have a knack for helping others “back off the edge,” most people feel at least a little bit nervous or apprehensive about these situations. I happen to be one of those people.

In my effort to master this skill, I have learned that having pre-planned strategies often helps me to keep my cool and to manage the situation more calmly.

If you’re like me, and you really don’t have a natural gift for handling situations where other people are angry, here are three pre-planned strategies you can use to navigate tense, angry conversations more skillfully…

Shift to the Future

When emotions get elevated, it is tempting to engage in long conversations about what the other person said or did or to explain what you said or did. Resist that urge. A little deviation towards what has already happened might help to set the context for future conversation, and diving deeply into a discussion about the past tends to…

  • Focus on blame and fault-finding
  • Create a feeling of powerlessness

When you shift the conversation towards the future you can focus the conversation on…

  • Solutions
  • Positive actions

The key point here is that you can learn from the past, you don’t want to live there.

One strategy you can use to apply this concept is to move the conversation to what you would like the person to DO in the FUTURE using The Power of  AND. A statement might sound like this…

“The next time this situation develops, I would like to see _____ happen.”

Relieve the pressure

People have a strong need to be heard and understood. As a result, when they get a chance to say what they are thinking or feeling, they often feel less threatened. When you can help a person to feel less threatened, their anger will tend to ease

I call one strategy you can use to apply this idea the “Anything Else?” Strategy. It could be applied like this…

You listen to the person’s immediate concern or complaint fully, and you say “anything else?”, and then you let them talk until they naturally decompress. You can repeat the general idea with some variation. For example, “Is that everything that is frustrating you?” In most cases, you won’t need to repeat more than 2 or 3 times to relieve their emotional pressure. Then, they are ready to engage in a different, less angry discussion.

Acknowledge the perspective

At the risk of being redundant, I’ll repeat what I said above. People have a strong need to be heard and understood. When you show that you understand how or what they think or feel, you help them to lower their anger level. Here’s an important point: You do NOT have to agree with them. You only need to show that you hear an understand them.

Here’s one way you could convey that you both hear and understand their perspective…

“It sounds like you are feeling ____. You know, if I were you, I would feel the same way.”

In most cases you’ll probably need to use more than one strategy in a tense situation. Here’s what a statement would sound like if you combined Acknowledge the Perspective and Shift to the Future…

“I now understand that you meant no disrespect and that you were frustrated at the time. If I were you, I probably would have been frustrated, too. And, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to discuss how we can address these issues better in the future.”

If you look carefully at that statement, you’ll see that I slipped in a fourth tactic – Ask Permission to change the topic or direction of the conversation.

As always, I have to add the caveat that none of these strategies is perfect. They have their limitations and liabilities. There are situations where they will work beautifully, and there are situations where they will be disastrous. It’s possible that a tactic will work in one situation with a person and wreak havoc on a different day in a different situation with the same person.

To use them well, you do need to develop the finesse and ability “read” a conflict situation so that you can adapt and adjust to the specific circumstances.

I have found that building a large repertoire of pre-planned strategies can help you stay cool, calm, and collected in even the most heated situations. Take these ideas, add them to your conflict communication tool box, and keep practicing.

Three Communication Strategies Guaranteed to Irritate Others


In workshops and coaching conversations, I receive many questions about the right way to communicate an idea. Sadly, I cannot define the absolutely, most correct, “right” way to communicate an idea – particularly if the idea is communicated during a conflict conversation. I can, however, identify several definitively wrong ways to do it. In today’s post, I’m going to share three communication strategies that are virtually guaranteed to irritate other people, and I’ll tell you what to do instead.

If you really want to irritate another person, use these three “I” communication strategies*…

Insinuation – to say (something, especially something bad or insulting) in an indirect way

Innuendo – a statement which indirectly suggests that someone has done something immoral, improper, etc.

Implication – something that is suggested without being said directly

When you look closely at each of the definitions, you’ll note that the word “indirect” appears in each of them, and, from an emotional perspective, that is the problem with each of these communication techniques.

Most people resort to one or more of these strategies in conflict situations because they feel a need to have their point heard, and they want to avoid upsetting the other person. As a result, they use an indirect approach in an effort to strike the balance between making their point and avoiding the pain of offending the other person.

And, it doesn’t work that way.

Here’s why.

Indirect communication approaches leave a gap between the words used and the real message. The danger lies in the fact that the gap will be filled by the person hearing the message. In most cases, it will be filled with their assumptions about the real message, and their assumptions will generally be more negative than the intended message. A message intended to convey mild irritation sounds – to the person hearing the message – like a strong personal attack.

A better, and a slightly counterintuitive, approach is to speak directly with people. It is more powerful, more persuasive, and less irritating to say exactly what you mean than it is to insinuate, infer, or imply.

As with any technique or tactic for working with people, this one can be taken to a ridiculous extreme. Yes, I am advocating direct, honest communication as a way to reduce and resolve conflicts. I do not advocate taking the approach to the extreme of rude and aggressive communication.

To minimize misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication, learn to use assertive and direct communication approaches that make your point clearly, concisely, and confidently.

What a Diverted United Airlines Flight Can Teach You about Conflict Resolution

aircraft landing

Shock and dismay are the best words I can use to describe my initial response to the news that a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver had been diverted to Chicago due to a dispute between passengers over leg room.

In the days that followed, I heard of two more similar disputes on other flights.

Again, my initial response was much like the newscasters and commentators I saw reporting on the incidents…

“Really! How could they be that irrational!”

Then, I saw a report on the Today Show featuring one of the participants in the first dispute. The man who reacted aggressively to a woman reclining her seat into “his space” reported that, after the fact, he was not proud of his response.

This report lead me to reflect on what you can learn from what happens between strangers in an airplane that you can apply to the interactions you have in your day-to-day work and personal life.

As I reflected, I realized that, while the response of everyone involved in these incidents was both extreme and a bit irrational, it is easily explainable. In fact, it’s not really all that surprising when you understand some things about human nature.

Since I can’t have a discussion with the people involved in these incidents, I’ll never know for sure what drove them. Based on what I can see though, the most obvious lessons are explained by…

  1. Our desire to feel like we have been treated fairly. The desire to create fairness can drive us to react strongly and in ways that are objectively harmful to ourselves and our best interests
  2. Our desire to behave consistently with our past decisions and actions. Once we verbalize a commitment or commit to a course of action, we find it difficult to change that commitment even in the face of new information. This tendency can lead to what is sometimes called non-rational escalation of commitment — a willingness to continue escalating the investment of time, energy, emotion, or money to “winning” the situation.

In calmer moments, the people in each of these incidents are probably pretty reasonable and rational. They are probably not “bad” or “stupid” people. More likely, they are just people who let themselves get trapped by two natural responses that almost all of us fall prey to at some point in our lives.

In reading the news reports, it looks to me like the man involved in the first incident on the United Airlines flight (the person who had the seat reclined into his lap) perceived that the other person was unfairly infringing on “his” space and was interrupting him from doing work that he had decided to do while on the plane. The combined impact of perceived unfairness and an interruption to his committed course of action (working on his computer) triggered a strong emotional reaction that, for the moment, made him irrational.

Sad, yes. Surprising, not really.

By understanding the underlying psychological principles and how they can impact your response to situations, here are two lessons you can learn to help you build your ability to successfully resolve conflicts and reach peaceable agreements with others.

Beware of verbalizing or committing to a position early in a negotiation or a conflict resolution discussion.

When you verbalize your position before you have had the opportunity to uncover all of the facts of a situation, you can trap yourself into a desire to “save face” by remaining committed to your starting position. Stay open, curious, and uncommitted as long as you can when you are working to solve a problem with another person.

Beware of behaving in a way that is perceived as threatening by the other person. 

Ramping up your energy level or the strength of your demand is tempting. It often seems like a way to strongly make your case so that you can force a conclusion to the discussion. It’s both tempting and dangerous.

Here’s how it apparently played out on the United flight…

Man puts “knee defender” blocking devices in tray table supports to restrict seat recline of the woman in front of him. Flight attendant asks man to remove devices from his tray table. Woman in front of man then rapidly and forcefully reclines. Man pushes seat forward and re-inserts blocking devices. Woman then throws a cup of water on man. Airplane lands in Chicago rather than Denver.

The man behaved in a way that was threatening to the woman. The woman behaved in a way that was threatening to the man. Nobody won.

When you behave in a way that the other person sees as threatening, the probability of a peaceful and successful resolution is incredibly low. The more likely outcome is a rapidly escalating conflict with no easy way out.

To successfully resolve conflicts and negotiate agreements…

  1. Remain curious about the other person and their perspective rather than judging it, and
  2. Learn to communicate assertively rather than aggressively.

Six Questions to Ask for Successful Collaboration

Collaboration Word Cloud

The biggest problem with collaborative problem solving is the collaborative part.

Many new leaders became leaders because they know how to get things done. This individual ability to solve problems, applied in a team environment, can become a weakness as the new leader pushes strongly for a solution that others resist.

I have been that new leader who pushed too strongly too early in the process. That approach rarely worked for me.

As I began working to develop better collaborative problem solving skills, I read How to Make Collaboration Work by David Straus, and I learned an approach for reaching better group decisions. Straus’ basic premise is that collaboration follows six predictable steps or stages.

Personally, I apply what Straus teaches by asking six questions of both myself and others as we work to solve problems together. Over time, I have found that the approach works well.

If possible, I suggest using the questions in the order listed here. If you are already engaged in a collaborative effort that has gotten stuck, you can use these questions to identify where you got off track and to get the discussion moving forward again.

Is there a problem?

I might see a problem. Others might not. Before we can reach an agreement on the best solution for the problem, we have to agree that a problem exists.

How do you define the problem?

How you solve a problem hinges on how you define the problem. If you define it one way and I define it a different way, we will never agree on the solution.

What are some possible causes for the problem?

Once we agree that there is a problem and that we both define it the same way, we can analyze the causes. If we assign different causes to the problem, we will not be able to agree on how to solve it.

What are some different ways we could solve the problem?

This is the brainstorming and creative stage. We want to identify as many possible solutions as possible so that we can pick the best one rather than the first one that we identify.

What would a successful solution look like?

Most of the problems we solve using this process could be solved in many different ways and every solution will have its own set of benefits and drawbacks. At this stage of the process, we agree on the criteria we will use to evaluate the possible solutions. For example, if we must trade quality or time in order to save costs, how much quality or time are we prepared to sacrifice to save money?

Which of the possible solutions best fits the solution criteria?

Finally, we can wrestle with deciding which solution best fits our agreed upon criteria.

This series of questions helps people to identify hidden assumptions or conclusions they might bring to the table that would hinder reaching a conclusion that everyone can accept. The process can sometimes get messy, and it can take some time. The benefit in sticking with it is that the time you invest in the process will pay you back in faster and better implementation due to better buy-in, commitment, and enthusiasm.

You Cannot Sell What You Do Not Own

For Sale by Owner

One day John, a newly promoted supervisor with Fictional Products, met with his boss, Bill, to discuss a new procedure recently mandated by a change to company policy.

John was not happy with the change because he knew that his team would not like it. The new procedure added two documentation steps to an existing operation, and he knew that it would add both time and energy to an already cumbersome process.

As he spoke with Bill, John argued his case to no avail. Bill insisted that John implement the procedure as written. John left the meeting feeling tired and discouraged. He knew that “selling” this change would be a tough job he did not want to tackle.

Before he called a meeting with his team to tell them about the change, he went back to his office to consider the situation more thoroughly. Sitting alone in his office, he thought through the following questions:

  • Does this change violate any laws or challenge any personally held moral and ethical considerations?
  • Does this change put anyone physically at risk?
  • Did Bill listen to my concerns and offer valid reasoning for the change?
  • Is my concern with the implementation specifics or with the overall goal?
  • Am I focused on avoiding the struggle and frustration I might experience as I “sell” this procedure to my team or am I focused on the end goal?

And, he concluded that…

  • The procedure change did not violate any legal, moral, or ethical concerns.
  • The change did not put anyone at risk physically.
  • Even though Bill disagreed with John’s concerns, Bill had listened to them and had offered valid reasons for the change.
  • John was able to agree with the stated goal even though he did not really like the added work the procedure demanded.
  • And, he realized that his real, and primary, concern was avoiding the resistance he expected to receive from his team when he told them about the change.

In the end, John decided that he needed to “get on-board” with the change, and then do the work necessary to “sell” his team on it.

John realized that whether he was selling something physical, like a boat, or something conceptual, like a procedure change, he could not sell something that he did not own. Because he understood both the reasoning behind the change and the overall goal, he was able “own it” despite some concerns he had with the implementation specifics.

Your Now Step:  Consider a change you have some reservations about that you need to sell to your team, use the questions that John thought through as you find a way to sell the idea to yourself before you try to sell it to others.

photo credit: Images_of_Money via photopin cc