None of us like to deal with angry parents, staff or colleagues however it is inevitable that we will have to do so - maybe many times unfortunately.
[PLEASE NOTE: You must assess the risk in these situations. If the situation is unsafe, follow your services policies to take the appropriate action and get the assistance you need from a third party or the police. This article does not apply to these dangerous situations.]
Here are some strategies and tips that you can use to handle the situation professionally when another adult's temper has flared:
1. Stay calm
No matter how angry the other person is, what type of day you've had or how bad the timing is, keep your cool.
As Louisa May Alcott said: It takes two flints to make a fire.
In other words, if you become heated or angry yourself, the situation is likely to escalate. It's critical that you manage your own temper in the moment.
By remaining the calm and poised person in the conversation, you'll be best placed to listen, to hold an objective discussion and to seek solutions with the person.
2. Listen & validate
When a person is venting and angry, they won't be able to listen or discuss the situation objectively until they calm down.
To allow a person to express their anger without escalating the situation:
- Listen to them vent
- Address their feelings
- Address the issue that is causing the problem
It's important to:
- Identify and focus on the person's emotions first - acknowledge their feelings
- Empathise with their situation
- Understand by listening to the concerns, clarify the situation by asking questions
- Be polite, friendly and open to finding a resolution
- Stay objective (not defensive)
- Hear the person out without interrupting
- Control your own emotional response, breathe.
3. De-escalate the situation
As we noted above, people can't listen when they are very angry.
Try to get the person's attention to improve the odds of resolving the situation positively by using these actions as appropriate:
- Using their name
- Keeping your gestures open
- Using a calm and low tone of voice
- Distancing the person away from others
- Staying out of their personal physical space
- Listening to them vent
- Using humour at your own expense
- Ignoring the outburst and moving to finding a solution
- Apologise if you are wrong or at fault
- Make an appointment to discuss the situation at another time when emotions have cooled
- Accept responsibility for errors on your part
- Take responsibility for finding a solution to the problem
- Ask them for recommendations on how the problem can be solved
- Thank them for their interest and recommendations (only if you can sincerely do so)
- If you can't do what they first recommend, ask what else you could do? Repeat until you can do something.
- Assure the person of your willingness to listen and help
- Ask and agree to take a break from the discussion
- Agree to consider the person's ideas and getting back to them
- Agree to postpone any decisions until everyone has had time to think things over and meet again
- Be honest
- Look for areas that you can agree on
- Agree to disagree
- Thank the person for letting you know that there was an issue or concern and for providing feedback
- Ask the person to put their concerns in writing
- Commit to getting back to the person after you've had time to investigate further
- Listen more than you talk
- Thank the person in advance for their patience while you work on the problem
4. Responding to an insult or put-down
One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with an angry person is to remain calm and respond professionally when they are insulting to you.
Here are some things to try (what you choose to do will depend on the situation):
- Do not give them the desired result. People who are insulting are looking for a reaction
- Ignore the insult completely - remain composed and quiet
- Address the insult directly by challenging them about their behaviour. For example, "From my side, that sounded like an insult. Is that how you meant it?"
- Plan ahead. Think about what you will say if an angry parent, colleague, boss or team member puts you down or insults you.
5. Avoid common emotional triggers
There are some types of words and statements that are likely to cause defensive behaviours and further escalate anger.
Although some of these issues may need to be addressed and discussed at a later time, they are not helpful in the heat of the moment.
Be aware of these and avoid using them in an angry conflict situation:
- "You" statements. Use assertive "I" statements instead.
- Judging or criticism - even if the person has brought the situation on themselves.
- Lecturing, preaching, commanding or advising about how the person should act or communicate.
- Intimidating statements - "do it or else...."
- Analysing or assuming why the angry person is doing or saying something - "you're just saying that because you're upset about your divorce"
If we had to choose one way of allowing a situation to cool down and for anger to subside, it would be to delay the discussion.
After listening briefly, try saying something like:
I can see that you are just as enthusiastic as I am to get this sorted. Let's meet tomorrow to discuss the pros and cons of the issue and come to an agreement together about a plan of action from here.
Further professional development
Dealing with angry people is one aspect of conflict resolution and growing your skills in being able to approach conflict professionally.
You may be interested in the following in-house workshops (Melbourne and Regional Victoria):
Or our online course:
And these related blogs: