Ryan Martin Ph.D.

All the Rage

5 Ways to Deal with Angry People

Stay calm, stay safe, and don't make it worse.

Posted Jun 09, 2015

CREATISTA/Shutterstock
Source: CREATISTA/Shutterstock

Most of my work looks at how we can understand and manage our own experiences with anger. However, there’s another side to this, since we all have to talk to, or work with, angry people all the time. Those interactions can be challenging—so here are 5 ways to deal with angry people.

First, though, a caveat: People experience and express their anger in a lot of different ways. Some internalize by pouting or withdrawing. Some yell, scream, swear, or insult others. Obviously, the way to respond to different anger expressions will differ. For the purpose of this post, I’m writing about ways to deal with people who are verbally aggressive, insulting, or even threatening

1. Ask Yourself if the Anger Is Justified

Sometimes anger is perfectly reasonable and it is always emotionally wise to consider the feelings of others during an interaction. You should ask yourself why the person is angry, what role you may have played, and if there is anything you can or should do to resolve the situation. It’s important to note that a person can be justifiably angry, yet express that anger in an unjustifiable way. In other words, if I spill a drink on someone at a party, it makes perfect sense that they would be angry with me. That response is perfectly justified. What would be unjustified and unacceptable is if they expressed that anger by yelling at me, swearing at me, or becoming physically aggressive.

I tease these two things apart because we can address our own mistakes even if someone responds in a way that is unnecessarily cruel or insulting. If I spill a drink on someone, and they yell at me in response, I can still apologize and offer to buy them a drink to make up for my error. I can tell them I don’t appreciate their yelling at me, but that I’m still sorry for spilling on them.

2. Stay Calm (at Least on the Outside)

One of the most important things can do when someone is angry at us is to stay calm. By that, I mean to avoid yelling, swearing, or raising our voice. We may not feel calm in the situation, but we can still act calmly. By speaking slowly and directly, and keeping our voice calm and soft, we’re less likely to exacerbate a situation. People tend to match each other’s volumes, pace, and general tone, so instead of meeting the angry person where he or she is at—and escalating the situation—try to de-escalate the situation by subtly encouraging them to lower their voice. 

3. Avoid Character Assaults

A guaranteed way to escalate an angry situation is to attack the other person’s character. Insulting them, or even saying things like “You always do this” is likely to make things worse. Instead, focus on specific behaviors or feelings in the moment. Instead of saying, "You always yell at me when you’re angry,” say, "Please don’t yell at me.” Instead of saying, “You’re so impatient,” say, “Can you please be patient with me.” Those may seem like subtle differences but you don’t want the person to feel attacked, as it will make them even more likely to lash out. It’s quite possible, maybe even likely, that the person really is too impatient, and if this is someone you are in a relationship with, you probably want to talk with them about that impatience at some point. However, the middle of an angry exchange isn’t the best time for that conversation. 

4. Know When to Disengage

In any exchange with an overly angry person, there may come a point when you need to disengage from the situation. There are lots of reasons why this might be the smart thing to do: To stay safe, for one (see below), but also, and more commonly, because the situation is such that there is unlikely to be any positive resolution. The person may be so angry that a healthy, reasonable conversation simply can’t be had at the time. If that’s what is going on, the best thing to do might be to say, “Let’s talk about this later when we’re calm,” and move on. Or, if it’s a stranger you’ll never see again, simply say, “I’m sorry for my part in this,” and walk away. 

5. Stay Safe

Finally, but fundamentally, when you’re dealing with an angry person, you’ve got to make sure you’re safe. People can be angry without being physically aggressive, of course. An angry person is not necessarily a violent person; far from it. However, we need to be aware of the fact that when people are angry, they can feel the urge to lash out, sometimes physically. If you don’t feel safe, get away from the person. Period. If you absolutely must interact with someone who you feel threatened by, make sure you aren’t alone with the individual, and enter the situation with a plan to get yourself out safely should it come to that.