The Most Important Tool When Dealing With an Emotionally Angry Person

I’ve been a high school teacher for close to two decades now. In that time, I’ve had to deal with my share of angry students. Some kids, by virtue of the challenges life has dealt them, live with a swirl of emotions that can include anger – anger at family, at friends, at teachers, at the world – and that anger can spill over even to people who have nothing to do with the cause of the anger. That means that, on occasion, I’ve been cursed out by students because of things that happened before that student got into my classroom.

But knowing the underlying reasons for the anger and responding appropriately in that situation are two very different things. Part of that is biological: it’s the legendary fight or flight response that we were all taught in middle school science class. When someone verbally attacks us, be it family or friends or a boss or whoever, our natural response is either to respond with equal aggression or to run away. As a teacher, it’s really hard to look into the eyes of a kid who just dropped a few f-bombs in my direction and not want to give him a piece of my mind.

Should that kid face consequences? Depending on the situation, perhaps so. But as a teacher I have a more immediate problem: how do I deal with a teenager (maybe one much bigger than me) who was so lost in his anger that he’d like nothing more than to take a swing at his teacher or his classmates, even if it risked being expelled or arrested?

Almost all of us have faced a situation like this. Maybe your situation was less intense (or, in the case of a police officer friend of mine, a situation that was far more intense) but, either way, you found yourself with a person who was really angry and you had to figure out how to respond, even as you may have had to corral your own emotions.

In that situation, your guiding principle should be: de-escalation. As in, bringing the tension level down.

Here’s what I mean. In medicine, there is principle known by the Latin phrase primum non nocere, which means, simply, to do no harm. The idea here is that a doctor should always consider the harm a medical practice might inflict on a patient, particularly if the harm might outweigh the good. But the idea has value outside of medicine, too, whether it be friendships, relationships, and work.  As a teacher, I think often about the idea of doing no harm when I interact with students, because the last thing I want to do is to actually make a child’s life worse than it would have been without me.

When we fight back against an angry person, we not only risk harm to them, but we risk harm to ourselves. That harm can be emotional, psychological, and, in rare cases, even physical. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when responding with equal anger isn’t necessary. Sometimes it might well be, especially if it’s a life threatening situation for someone.

But oftentimes it isn’t. The aforementioned police officer friend of mine once admitted that police officers—his own colleagues—sometimes make things worse by ratcheting up the anger in response to an angry suspect. He said that he and his colleagues have undergone de-escalation training, which has helped him and others think carefully about how to take a potentially explosive situation and keep it from … well, exploding.

So how do you do that? There are lot of little things you can do, but let’s focus on some crucial ones.

A calm tone of voice. There is research that shows that when you lower the volume and tone of your voice, it has a calming effect on the other person. (The opposite is also true.) Talking in a quiet, calm voice is an important first step, both for your own self-control and for the other person.

Relaxed body language. Instead of leaning into the person’s space with your arms crossed, relax your posture and give the other person some physical space.

Avoiding accusations. Instead, ask questions, listen carefully, and use “I” statements. “I feel hurt” or “What happened made me uncomfortable” are ways of expressing how you feel without coming off as attacking the other person.

Learning to strategically ignore. An angry person might make irrational or mean comments to you or others … and those can be a diversion from the real problem. If you know what the real problem is, asking about that rather than being sidetracked by the other stuff can be a big difference-maker.

Set personal limits. Know your own limits. If the situation is more than you can handle rationally, there’s nothing wrong saying so. At times you might have to say things like, “I am not in a place to discuss this right now” or “I need some space to think about this.”

If needed, get space to deliberate. If it’s clear that nothing good is going to come of any interaction at that moment, give the person (and yourself) time to think. It lets you decide how you want to handle things and the other person time to cool off from their anger. A big reason judges deliberate is so they make the best decisions; it works for the rest of us, too.

So what about you? What do you do to try and de-escalate a situation?

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