Dealing With an Angry Person

7 Ways to Handle a Hothead -- Without Blowing Your Top
All Rights Reserved

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.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

9 months, said...

Very interesting and helpful advice. I actually came about this article through a google search as I just encountered a particular situation with a close friend. There are certain personality and character traits however that one has to consider. Hence whilst one can do the best to calm and deal with such a person. We also have to acknowledge the characteristics of that person. We actually might be doing the same thing without realising

12 months, said...

Hi, Paula. Your article is very informative. It contains many useful tips. It is intimidating meeting an angry person. If you don't know what to do, you'll be in trouble. But there are simple steps you can use to handle angry people. If you want, I have an additional resource THanks a lot for this post. Best regards, Robinson.

over 1 year, said...

OMG once you realize the man your with is angry all the time run. You can't fix him and you can't spend your life walking on eggshells! It's not you it's him trust me on this. This is his problem a good man will be a grown up not get angry all the time but sit and discuss the problems etc.. or come to you say I'm sorry work has been the problem not you. If your man keeps blaming you run thIs is a sign of an abuser or Narcissist. A man with very low emotional intelligence has tantrums hasn't grown past age 6. Trust me move on if it continues and he doesn't try to resolve the problem on his own etc..

over 1 year, said...

I moved back to my old neighborhood and started to see this guy, now boyfriend. I currently live with him, I cook ,clean n work full time. He always jumps down my throat or gets very irritated saying "I want u to FN leave", honestly I have no place to go with my two dogs. I'm concerned about this relationship- one day he's nice then next he's very upset..we go buy groceries n have good time soon as something gets misunderstood (low talker hard to hear) he yells n screams..we do not sleep in same room n I want to be held.. What am I doing that's the problem. A smile on my face or ignore give him space I FIND things to do...WHAT DO I DO???

over 1 year, said...

My adult children gave HIM a Mr. Grinch T shirt... my error.

over 1 year, said...

Well, I lived with a very angry and reactive husband for over 25 years. We are in our late sixties. He is rarely calm. When there is a small conflict or issue, he reacts very strongly. The two adult children gave me a Mr. Grinch t shirt for Christmas. He laughed but doesn t get it. I walk away from his anger, refused to pacify or enable him. When he become explosive, I say, what are you going to do about it? Does it works? No, I think he is very comfortable being angry. His ninety years old mother compliments him when he is upset about something. She blames me for his anger. He has not been employed for 23 years. He blames me. Don't suggest a sole breadwinner to leave him since I like our home. I asked him to move in his mother's home. He refused. It is a sad and messy marriage. Comments?

over 1 year, said...

Very helpful advice. I can see what I've been doing to escalate anger and will use these techniques. Thank you!

almost 2 years, said...

These things are a good way to go about it, but when it comes down to it, the person in question needs to have a perspective where they dont like the anger, and want to change. Calling an angry person angry just makes them angry, even if you say it in a calm way, sometimes its just a lose-lose situation if the person is stubborn and self-centered

almost 2 years, said...

The angry person i have to deal with is smarter than I. He immediately saw what i was doing then accused me of patronizing him and trying to deflect his anger. He is extremely defensive and sarcastic. Cannot get the upper hand or speak quick enough to deflate the situations.

almost 2 years, said...

My sister is so hard to talk to she gets angry at a drop of a hat and she's worse sent she's been on Facebook! She can't talk to you sent she's got Facebook it's a bumper !

about 2 years, said...

How do you handle someone's anger at you when they have the upper hand? When you are relying on them for a lot of your physical needs? When they throw that at you as the reason they are angry at you? They are completely unmanageable in any way, even with these techniques.

about 2 years, said...

Your advice on how to handle someone else's anger is good. But not every person who ever gets angry is an abusive raving lunatic to be handled with kid gloves, as you imply here. Anger is an unpleasant human emotion, but a normal one. People who have a genuine reason to be angry but try to supress it are depressed. You site some silly reasons for being angry, indeed. But if you get in your car drunk and kill someone's dog, they will. be angry, with good reason, and strategies for dealing with that anger would still apply.

almost 3 years, 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!

almost 3 years, 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.

almost 3 years, 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.

about 3 years, 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