Dealing With an Angry Person

7 Ways to Handle a Hothead -- Without Blowing Your Top
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It's never fun to deal with an angry person, whether we're talking about a hothead who's quick to anger or a chronically angry grouse. Unfortunately, none of the natural reactions that an angry person inspires -- defensiveness, fear, or getting mad yourself -- tend to be productive.

What's more effective: these seven tactics. According to experts, careful responses can help you counter a hothead without losing your head.

1. Let the angry person know you understand that he's upset.

What this sounds like: "I understand that you're really angry right now that I missed our appointment." "Oh, wow, you seem really mad that the doctor's office never called back." "You're mad that I ate that last brownie -- is that it?"

It's important to be specific, to hit home the message to the other person that he or she is truly understood. Don't just say, "I understand what you're saying."

Keep the focus on the other person's emotions. Don't say, "I understand because I've been there, too." The upset person doesn't care; in the heat of the moment, he feels like his experience is unique.

Why it helps: The tactic known as "reflective listening" or "active listening" is a basic building block to all kinds of effective communication, says psychologist Steve Sultanoff, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. Especially with someone who's seething with anger, it's not enough for you to realize that he or she is upset (which tends to be pretty obvious). You need to demonstrate that realization to the upset person by saying so.

The effect of simply stating what's behind the anger is like pouring cool water on a fire. "As humans, we have a tendency to feel connected when another person gets us," Sultanoff says. "Repeating back what you're hearing the angry person say is both connecting and calming."

How Asking the Right Questions Can Help You Deal With an Angry Person

Solicit what the angry person wants from you.

What this sounds like: "What is it you want or need right now?" "How can I help you?" "How do you envision the outcome of this in terms of what I could do?"

Why it helps: Most anger develops when the person perceives the world (or situation) as unfair, according to Sultanoff. "Anger is generating energy to get the unfair thing fixed," he says. Sometimes the anger stems from a perceived wrong: You or someone else did (or is perceived as having done) something upsetting -- forgot a birthday, broke a prized possession. Sometimes, though, the anger stems from a bigger sense of being wronged -- the person lost a job, his or her partner left, or he or she has a tough medical diagnosis, for example.

But nobody wants to listen to endless ranting. So cut to the chase by moving the conversation (even if it's mostly one-sided barking, so far) to a more proactive realm. Basically you're saying, in a nice way, "So what do you want me to do about it?"

How Offering Help Can Help You Deal With an Angry Person

Offer what help you can -- or say clearly what you can't do.

What this sounds like: This can take several forms. You may be able to fill the desire: "Let me see if I can call the doctor for you and find out what the delay is." You may hear that an apology is desired, if you accept some fault for the situation: "I'm sorry, I didn't realize the snack I ate was something you were saving for yourself. Please accept my apology -- I'll buy you a replacement."

Or you may decide that it's not within your power to help. If so, express that clearly: "I wish I could stay longer today to help, but I can't." Or, "I know you're mad about being fired and want your old job back, but I can't do anything about that. It is what it is."

Sometimes it's within your power to help, but you choose not to -- that's setting a boundary, and it's perfectly OK. Express it as a "can't" rather than a "don't want to": "I'm sorry, I wish I could help you with that, but I can't today."

Why it helps: You want to keep moving the situation along in a productive way. After the person expresses what he or she wants, decide what, if anything, you're able do, and say so.

How Setting Limits Can Help You Deal With an Angry Person

Set limits on what you'll tolerate.

What this sounds like: "I can see you're really angry, but you're taking it out on me -- and if you care about me, you'll stop." Note that this works better with strong, close relationships, such as between family members or close friends.

For anyone, it's reasonable to say calmly: "Look, I'm willing to listen, but you have to stop shouting at me." Or, "I can see that you're upset about X. But if you want to talk about it and get my help to resolve it, you have to quit attacking me."

Still being berated or screamed at? It's OK to quit the conversation. And if you feel physically threatened, leave. You always have that power in the conversation.

Why it helps: Some angry people need to vent it out of their system before they'll engage with you, says Ken Robbins, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Even if the person is overreacting and exhibiting anger that feels out of proportion, don't argue or get drawn into a defensive Ping-Pong match."

While the other party has a right to feel anger (or any other emotion), he or she doesn't have the right to turn it on others in a threatening way.

If the ranting persists, calling the person on it in a nonaccusatory way can sometimes help him or her snap out of it.

How Reframing Can Help You Deal With an Angry Person

Accept that the aggrieved person is probably doing the best he or she can.

What this sounds like: Literally say to yourself something like, "Bob must be having a bad day." Or "Sue misunderstood me, but blowing her top is just the way she copes."

Why it helps: Reframing another person's anger actually changes the way your brain responds to it, according to a new study in the November 2011 issue of the journal Psychological Science. By consciously telling yourself, "It's not my fault he's angry" or "She must be having a bad day," you can actually eliminate the electrical signals associated with the negative emotions that are triggered when we see angry faces, the researchers found.

"You can see this as a kind of race between the emotional information and the reappraisal information in the brain," says Stanford researcher Jens Blechert, who trained subjects to adjust their attitudes before viewing an angry face, then evaluated brain activity. Emotional processing (how we react to anger) moves through the brain through one circuit, but consciously reappraising the situation uses another route and modifies the emotional reaction.

Mustering some empathy for a barking boss or seething family member isn't easy, Pepperdine's Sultanoff says. But doing so helps move you out of the natural gut reaction to being yelled at, which is defensiveness. "When we're defensive, we're taking care of us, not the other person," he says. And that, he adds, can lead to a downward spiral.

Instead, try telling yourself that the angry person is doing the best he or she can, given the situation -- "even when the best they can do is pretty crappy," Sultanoff says.

How Cutting Yourself Some Slack Can Help You Deal With an Angry Person

Accept that you're doing the best you can, too.

What this sounds like: "I wish I could have stayed with Jack long enough to fix his computer, but I already stayed an hour and I'm late for the gym. . . . I know that others will be upset when I take care of myself, but I have to. I can't always give and give and give to others; it's OK to give to myself." Or "I wish I could help Jill, but there's nothing I can do about her ex-husband being a jerk. I know I'm a good friend and I'll be there when there's something specific I can solve, but right now all I can do is listen and say, 'Look, I can't do anything to change that.'"

Why it helps: Cutting yourself some slack about how you're dealing with a volcanic personality helps to inoculate yourself against feeling angry or fearful about the interaction.

This inner dialog may sound hokey. But you'd be surprised how effective self-acceptance is. Often what's difficult about disentangling from an angry person is that we try to "fix" their situation even when we can't. That sucks us into the other person's emotional outburst and leaves us angry and frustrated, too, or renders us feeling powerless or afraid.

How Humor Can Help You Deal With an Angry Person

Try humor.

What it sounds like: Sultanoff suggests lines like these: "This is beyond my capabilities -- let me consult my other personalities." "I'm sorry I forgot to pick up your prescription -- OMG, you caught me playing with my mental blocks!" "I wish I had a magic wand -- I'd wave it for you and fix everything."

Why it helps: Humor can defuse situations that have grown tense, especially within relationships that are close or playful. "Humor can shift the moment," says Sultanoff, who's the former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. Just be sure not to make fun of the person you're trying to help, he says. Humor is best targeted at yourself or the situation.


6 months ago, said...

I have a scenario where a business partner was extremely upset and yelling and cursing at me and call me names. So I have quite a few business dealings with them over the next 90 days. I want to continue to move forward but I can't seem to get them to acknowledge or respond to any emails, calls or texts to ask to speak about the conversation. How would you recommend me moving forward? Thank you! I have a scenario where a business partner was extremely upset and yelling and cursing at me and call me names. So I have quite a few business dealings with them over the next 90 days. I want to continue to move forward but I can't seem to get them to acknowledge or respond to any emails, calls or texts to ask to speak about the conversation. How would you recommend me moving forward? Thank you! Hide


6 months ago, said...

This was extremely helpful. It gave me some mechanisms to try with my family member as well as helped assuage my guilt since he blames me for not saying or doing the right thing when he,s upset and thus I am afraid of saying anything since I do not know what will help or make it worse. Thank you. This was extremely helpful. It gave me some mechanisms to try with my family member as well as helped assuage my guilt since he blames me for not saying or doing the right thing when he,s upset and thus I am afraid of saying anything since I do not know what will help or make it worse. Thank you. Hide


7 months ago, said...

If u choose to express your anger through force, of voilence, note this is a temparary fix at the time your raging but the more you engage in out bursts such as throwing things it makes u more of an angry person than a calming person to be able to deal with situations. If u choose to express your anger through force, of voilence, note this is a temparary fix at the time your raging but the more you engage in out bursts such as throwing things it makes u more of an angry person than a calming person to be able to deal with situations. Hide


10 months ago, said...

My 74 yr old sister (I'm 72) is much smarter than me on investments and pretty much everything than I am! I know nothing about these things! She handles my IRA etc and she can be very humiliating and demeaning to the point I just won't to cut ties with her! Rather than do this I would just like to know how to respond to her when she says " you never listen to what I tell you to do"!!! HELP My 74 yr old sister (I'm 72) is much smarter than me on investments and pretty much everything than I am! I know nothing about these things! She handles my IRA etc and she can be very humiliating and demeaning to the point I just won't to cut ties with her! Rather than do this I would just like to know how to respond to her when she says " you never listen to what I tell you to do"!!! HELP Hide


10 months ago, said...

I am a hotheaded. Just want to control my anger. Just want to reduce my angriness. I am going to loss something I dnt want to. Please help me any1. I am a hotheaded. Just want to control my anger. Just want to reduce my angriness. I am going to loss something I dnt want to. Please help me any1. Hide


11 months ago, said...

Am in need of how to get your EX back or your husband marriage strong you have to contact this man for all kind of solution you are looking for is there for help once again Dr. Rev peter chuiks for more help you are into thank you. Am in need of how to get your EX back or your husband marriage strong you have to contact this man for all kind of solution you are looking for is there for help once again Dr. Rev peter chuiks for more help you are into thank you. Hide


about 1 year ago, said...

This really is sugar coating the anger problem a lot of people have. I don't think I should have to stratagize so that I can maybe defuse a Sociopath or the like. This really is sugar coating the anger problem a lot of people have. I don't think I should have to stratagize so that I can maybe defuse a Sociopath or the like. Hide


almost 2 years ago, said...

The answers to the question of sundowns are interesting. It seems to me as a caregiver that if fall is the number one risk that not treating sundowns in an over active client will lead to physical harm. So when do we medicated and when do we not? The answers to the question of sundowns are interesting. It seems to me as a caregiver that if fall is the number one risk that not treating sundowns in an over active client will lead to physical harm. So when do we medicated and when do we not? Hide


almost 2 years ago, said...

Just like One Size Fits All, no one solution will work with an angry person. That is why I really enjoy this article. Figure out why the person is angry, and then you will know how to deal with it. Some things are very simple and easy to implement, other things will take time and maybe leg-work on the care giver's part, but to help someone who is legitimately angry and is frustrated because of not being able to do something about it, is a good thing. When my husband would get angry during... Show more Just like One Size Fits All, no one solution will work with an angry person. That is why I really enjoy this article. Figure out why the person is angry, and then you will know how to deal with it. Some things are very simple and easy to implement, other things will take time and maybe leg-work on the care giver's part, but to help someone who is legitimately angry and is frustrated because of not being able to do something about it, is a good thing. When my husband would get angry during the last part of his disease process, he was more frustrated than angry. I was able to find out what the problem was and then take care of it. That was helpful for both of us. Humor is helpful in many cases. I like to use humor because it can diffuse the situation. It is hard to laugh or even giggle and be angry. Hide


almost 2 years ago, said...

It's true we often need to modify these methods when dealing with loved ones with dementia. Rather than wordy responses, sometimes what works best is just keeping quiet for a bit, then giving the angry person a hug and a smile, telling them we love them. But I find it helps to think the wordy responses so that I don't just react emotionally -- which makes the situation worse. It's true we often need to modify these methods when dealing with loved ones with dementia. Rather than wordy responses, sometimes what works best is just keeping quiet for a bit, then giving the angry person a hug and a smile, telling them we love them. But I find it helps to think the wordy responses so that I don't just react emotionally -- which makes the situation worse. Hide


almost 2 years ago, said...

This article is so helpful in that not feelling that you have to help a person(s) (now with my husband and his illness(s)) in THEIR situation . I have learned to set limits for ALL concerned if not it has been my experience it will leave you drained and the relationship (s) does not give back in any way Thank You so much. This article is so helpful in that not feelling that you have to help a person(s) (now with my husband and his illness(s)) in THEIR situation . I have learned to set limits for ALL concerned if not it has been my experience it will leave you drained and the relationship (s) does not give back in any way Thank You so much. Hide


almost 2 years ago, said...

Although I found this article, like your others, interesting reading, I wouldn't recommend most of the suggestions for someone with AZ or dementia, which may just escalate the situation, rather than diffusing it. I have found the best approach with an AZ grouch (realizing it is the disease magnifying old personality) is to let him vent and listen. Should I attempt to reason, offer suggestions or apologies, affirming my care and love (this may backfire) I may often get more anger personally... Show more Although I found this article, like your others, interesting reading, I wouldn't recommend most of the suggestions for someone with AZ or dementia, which may just escalate the situation, rather than diffusing it. I have found the best approach with an AZ grouch (realizing it is the disease magnifying old personality) is to let him vent and listen. Should I attempt to reason, offer suggestions or apologies, affirming my care and love (this may backfire) I may often get more anger personally released to me. Unfortunately, with professional recommendations, I listen only, and yes, it works (have to remember to adhere to it). If I engage in conversation during the anger mode I am really only adding ammunition. In this case I have realized it's easier and probably healthier for all for me to bite my tongue (avoiding tit for tat), hold feelings inside (for the moment) and walk away (realizing my magnitude of emotions and feelings, to tend to later, may be the better alternative). Any illness of a loved one is sad and at stages of their illness the caregiving role may be more mental than physical, no less of a responsibility or toll. We have to remember to take care of ourselves. God Bless All Caregivers! Hide


about 2 years ago, said...

Good ideas--hope I can remember them in the heat of the moment! Good ideas--hope I can remember them in the heat of the moment! Hide


over 2 years ago, said...

How to handle a stubborn, assuming, hothead was not addressed. I am in quite a fix...My boyfriend has a beautiful heart, but the most and biggest stubborn streak...Now, he has alienated his only daughter, his grandchildren and his former sister in law. I am the only one who hasnt as yet told him my boundaries of this behavior, he is 66 years old (I am 59) and he has temper tantrums, will close up and either walk away and not talk with you again until he is ready...whcih could be days. I... Show more How to handle a stubborn, assuming, hothead was not addressed. I am in quite a fix...My boyfriend has a beautiful heart, but the most and biggest stubborn streak...Now, he has alienated his only daughter, his grandchildren and his former sister in law. I am the only one who hasnt as yet told him my boundaries of this behavior, he is 66 years old (I am 59) and he has temper tantrums, will close up and either walk away and not talk with you again until he is ready...whcih could be days. I know that it is up to me to set my boundaries, but since I met him, he had a dying daughter from alcohol poisoning and she has died. this is when the anger began, but his refusal to listen to anyone, or do any change of behavior now, is impossible for him to think he needs to I am very upset about this, because I love him very much and do not want to lose him...What is a good way to handle this volatile situation... Please help! Hide


almost 3 years ago, said...

I disagree! The worse thing anyone can do, if they have any consideration for a person's need to release emotions (whether it be happiness, sadness, anger...), is to tell them to stop shouting or walk away. This makes a person even more angrier! Unless you are absolutely certain this angry person is 'taking it out on you' and not just venting to let out the steam from the pressure cooker, you should be human enough to recognize anger (have you ever felt it yourself) and be more tolerable of... Show more I disagree! The worse thing anyone can do, if they have any consideration for a person's need to release emotions (whether it be happiness, sadness, anger...), is to tell them to stop shouting or walk away. This makes a person even more angrier! Unless you are absolutely certain this angry person is 'taking it out on you' and not just venting to let out the steam from the pressure cooker, you should be human enough to recognize anger (have you ever felt it yourself) and be more tolerable of the 'normal' tone of voice angry people use while expressing anger...on the other hand, anyone whispering or speaking softly while expressing anger must be INSANE and certainly someone you would want to walk away from! Hide


almost 3 years ago, said...

The angry person has dementia--the only thing she understands is me ending the visit. The angry person has dementia--the only thing she understands is me ending the visit. Hide


almost 3 years ago, said...

Please be very careful in using "humor." I avoid using it in conflict situations. It can be seen as dismissive and disrespectful. Many people use humor to distance themselves from what they fear--like anger---but it can be very hurtful. Please be very careful in using "humor." I avoid using it in conflict situations. It can be seen as dismissive and disrespectful. Many people use humor to distance themselves from what they fear--like anger---but it can be very hurtful. Hide


about 3 years ago, said...

I am married to a hothead who's been a hothead since he was a child. When he gets into a rant I now have several processing methods that will save both he and I the reinaction of past hurtful scenes and thus adding to them. Humor, unfortunately, would not work in our case...it would be perceived as sarcasm which would add fuel to a fully engaged wildfire. We have been a couple since 1965 and have fought -- sometimes with threats of abandonment, etc. -- from nearly the beginning of our... Show more I am married to a hothead who's been a hothead since he was a child. When he gets into a rant I now have several processing methods that will save both he and I the reinaction of past hurtful scenes and thus adding to them. Humor, unfortunately, would not work in our case...it would be perceived as sarcasm which would add fuel to a fully engaged wildfire. We have been a couple since 1965 and have fought -- sometimes with threats of abandonment, etc. -- from nearly the beginning of our relationship. There is no question that we love each other but also have a lot of baggage no one should want to lug around any longer. We were separated for over a year during the early 1970's but have been fairly inseparable since getting back together. He is 71 years old, I am 69. Thank you for some great advice I will put to good use. Hide