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…
- 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.