It is never very easy communicating with angry people and when we are faced with anger we often go on the defensive, understandably so because it feels like we are being attacked, verbally! Our instinct is to either lash out (fight back) or run away (flight). Sometimes flight is the best option, distancing yourself before saying something you might regret later. Or if the angry person is coming at you with a knife, for example, then running away is decidedly the best option!
Getting angry with someone who is angry with you will only escalate the situation so it is best if you can deal with this as calmly and as assertively as possible.
Your inner voice is critical here. Instead of thinking ‘How dare this person speak to me like this’, which will only make you aggressive towards them, it is far better to tell yourself to keep calm, that you can handle it.
My own response to anger is to depersonalize it by thinking, ‘Why is this person behaving like this? There must be a reason.’ You need to keep an open mind as to what is causing that anger, trying to see it from the other person’s viewpoint.
When someone is angry it is not usually you they are angry with but the situation. Something has happened to make them angry. You need to deal with it before it escalates into a personal attack.
Get the right body language and inner voice
Body language is critical here. Keep your posture as upright and open as possible, telling yourself, ‘I can handle this, I can deal with this, I can keep calm.’ Take slow breaths. Keep your eye contact on the other person and lean towards them. This takes courage. Mirror the other person’s body language if you can but obviously if they are waving a fist at you it is not advisable to mirror this! What I mean is that if they are standing you should stand too, if they are sitting then sit down.
What to do next
Once you have got your inner voice under control and your body language right, listen hard to what they are saying. When people are angry they do not always express themselves clearly, in fact they rarely do. They let off steam. Allow them to do this and don’t interrupt them. Let them have their say. You can never reason with someone until they have worked their anger out. When they have said what they needed to say then you can start asking them questions but before you do this summarize what they have said, stating the position as they see it. This enables you to check that you have fully understood the situation and shows them that you have listened. Keep your voice assertive, i.e. steady and controlled, neither shouting nor mumbling.
‘So what you’re saying, Mr. Smith, is that we promised to come and see you on Thursday and after waiting in all day, no one turned up?’
‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I had to take a whole day off work.’
Empathize if you need to and apologize if you or your organization is in the wrong.
‘I do apologize Mr. Smith. I recognize how irritating and inconvenient that must have been for you. Now, let me take some details and sort this out for you. What is the order number?’
Here I have apologized and empathized with him (well who wouldn’t?) and then asked him an open question to get the facts. By this time hopefully Mr. Smith is calming down.
Sometimes you can also de-escalate this situation by asking the angry person what action they would like you to take. This puts the initiative (and the solution) firmly back with them, sometimes taking them by surprise and catching them off guard.