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How to Respond When Someone Is Angry

Learning to effectively manage an angry attack is an important life skill.

Key points

  • It's best not to try to reason with angry people who aren't really listening.
  • You can often de-escalate a situation by letting an angry person know that you hear them.
  • If someone is being abusive, your main goal should be to get to safety.
  • Staying calm while someone is angrily venting is crucial in working to resolve or manage the situation.
ESB Professional/Shutterstock
Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

When someone is so angry or upset that they cannot listen to anything you have to say, it's likely time to stop trying to counter their arguments. But it's still important to assert yourself. So then what? How can you turn their tirade into a conversation?

De-Escalate and Mentalize

Start by trying to de-escalate the situation rather than arguing your side. Remember, they are not listening to you. Stay calm if you can, then listen to what they are saying and show that you understand; maybe even agree with parts of their thinking. If you cannot stay calm or they remain stuck in a fit of anger, take a break until you both calm down. Then try again to listen to what they have to say. Make sure they can see that you have heard them before you share your thoughts and feelings. When you do, be sure to focus on your experience, not on criticizing them.

As they explain their perspective, you can gain a better understanding by asking them to fully describe what they are thinking and feeling. You might even ask what you have done to aggravate or upset them. As you listen, do your best to stay calm and open. They will hopefully appreciate how you are truly taking in what they are saying, even if you don’t agree. (The process of understanding what’s motivating a person is called mentalizing.)

If tensions are still high, you may want to wait for a time when they might be more open to your message.

Protect Yourself

Importantly, you must protect yourself if the other person is being verbally abusive. No one deserves to be verbally attacked or demeaned or be the victim of contempt. In this situation, end the conversation, and walk away. If you want to continue the relationship, return to them when tensions have lessened. Be sure to explain that you want to work through the problems, but that you are unwilling to accept them continuing to treat you that way.

However, if attacking you is a pattern, seriously consider avoiding or minimizing future interactions with the person. If you fear that the other person may respond to you ending the conversation and walking away by escalating to physical violence, then do what’s necessary to stay safe, such as continuing the conversation in a placating way. But after the conversation, get to safety.

Stay Calm to Move On

But truly dire situations are in the minority. Whether in your personal life or at work, it is important to effectively manage situations in which someone is simply venting temporary anger in your direction. First and foremost, stay calm. By avoiding entering the emotional turmoil with your own anger or insistence, you increase your chances of resolving, or managing, the situation as best as possible.

More from Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph.D.
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