Dealing with Angry People in the Workplace

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Dealing with Angry People

He who angers you, conquers you.”

Elizabeth Kenny

It is not just our own anger that can get overwhelming. Another person’s blow up can also trigger intense reactions in us, including shock, fear, and even reactive rage. In this module we will discuss how we can effective deal with angry people. Specifically we will talk about the Energy Curve, de-escalation techniques, and guidelines on when to back away and what to do.

Understanding the Energy Curve

One of the tricky things about handling another person’s anger is reacting in a way that will not escalate the anger. This is where an understanding of the Energy Curve can help.

The Energy Curve shows the pattern commonly found in angry reactions. It shows how angry reactions progress in stages, and in each stage there are appropriate responses.

Here are some key points to note about the Energy Curve:

  1. The baseline of the curve is rational behavior. This is the stage when a reasonable discussion about the cause of the anger can happen. Before an angry reaction, a person is said to be in that ‘rational’ frame of mind. However, once the angry reaction takes root, people go into a state of mind not conducive to reasoning. It is important then to get the person back to a rational frame of mind.

IMPLICATION: You cannot reason with a person during these times: when their anger is taking off, at the height of their anger/ rage and even at the point when they are cooling down! You’ll just waste a perfectly good argument.

  • Angry reaction slowly builds momentum, and the point when the anger is gaining energy is called the ‘take off’ stage. The way anger builds in intensity differs from person to person. For example, some people start with hostile facial reactions, which progresses to shouting, and which progresses to hitting the table. Other people build up anger in less obvious ways, they start with keeping quiet and then progresses to physically withdrawing themselves from other people. The anger would continue to build energy until it reaches its peak.

IMPLICATION: Anger naturally builds energy during the take off phase. Arguing back at this point in fact, any conversation would just be futile. Don’t react! Respond.

  • In this stage is the most intense of the person’s reaction. It is a turning point; the reaction stops gaining momentum and begins a steady decline.
  • Once the angry reaction has reached its height, it will start to subside. You can tell by observing the person’s behavior — often their voices go down to a level tone, they are not moving their hands as much and they seem to breathe easier. Unless provoked further, the person will run out of steam. However, if you start arguing to the person or agitating the person even during this stage, the reaction can take off once again.

IMPLICATION: Only when the angry reaction has slowed down can you introduce supportive behavior. Supportive behavior can be any statement that acknowledges the anger, example: “I can see that this is an upsetting experience for you.”

  • Once the individual has returned to this stage, you can begin to start talking about the problem reasonably. You may even start problem solving at this point.

SUMMARY: When a person is angry, just let them vent! It’s the fastest way to deal with the situation.

De-escalation Techniques

De-escalation techniques are skilled interventions designed to facilitate a person’s cooling down process, reduce the possibility of getting verbally or physically hurt, and gain control of the situation.

The following are examples of de-escalation techniques:

Practice active listening.

Most of the time, all an angry person needs is an opportunity to tell someone how they feel, and have their anger acknowledged. Seeing that you are genuinely listening to their grievance can help lessen the intensity of their angry reaction.

The following are some helpful components of active listening:

  1. Show non-verbally that you are listening: Make sure that your posture shows openness. Establish eye contact. Speak in a soft, well-modulated, non-threatening tone of voice.
  • Reflect: Re-state what you hear from the person. Example: “This is what I heard from you: You are mad because the package did not arrive on time.” You can also mirror back their body language in a tentative but objective, non-judgmental fashion. Example: “I can see that you’re really upset. You are clasping the desk very tightly.”
  • Clarify: Help the person make sense of their garbled, confusing, and or illogical statements. “Could you help me explain to me a bit more about what happened in the cafeteria? What do you mean by ‘he bullied you’?

Increase personal space: Anger can escalate if a person feels that he is being stifled. Make sure your body language is non-threatening. Create distance between you and the person.

Help the person recover a sense of control: Angry people may feel victimized by a situation, and may need to recover even a small sense of control. You can help do this by:

  1. Giving them choices.
  2. Example: “Would you like to move to a different area and talk?”
  3. Seeking their permission to speak.
  4. Example: May I tell what I think about what just happened?
  5. Focusing on immediate solutions.
  6. Example: “What do you think we can do today to help solve this issue?”

Orient them to immediacy: People temporarily loses track of their immediate surroundings at the height of getting overwhelmed. Orienting the person to the time, his location, and who he is with can help de-escalate a person. It helps a person feel less threatened if he knows where he is and how he got there. The goal also is to shift him from attending to his overwhelming feelings to recovering rationality.

Invite criticism: Ask the angry person to voice his or her criticism of yourself or the situation more fully. You might say something like, “Go ahead. Tell me everything that has you upset. Don’t hold anything back. I want to hear all you have to say.”

Agree if possible. If not, agree to disagree: There are cases when anger is triggered by a legitimate grievance. In these cases, it can help a person lose steam by hearing someone validate the presence of injustice. At the very least, agreeing that a person has a right to the opinion they have can help de-escalate anger.

Reiterate your support: Emphasize your willingness to help. Example: “Okay. I don’t know how this thing could have happened, but you have my assurance that I’ll stay with you until we figure it out.”

Set limits: Tell the person that you are willing to listen, but you’d appreciate that the tones down the expression of his anger.

Example is: “I’m listening right now. I’d like to talk, but without the shouting. When you shout it is distracting, and if this issue is important to you, then I want to be able to concentrate without hearing you raise your voice. Can we start again? How did I upset you? “

When to Back Away and What to Do Next

Not all angry reactions can be effectively dealt with. Here are situations when it is more advisable to back away:

  1. When you are too affected by an issue to view it objectively.

De-escalating anger requires that you can take yourself out of an issue, even temporarily, and look at it objectively. However, if the issue has personal meaning for us, or we are too tired to properly intervene, then we don’t have the resources to de-escalate the anger.

WHAT TO DO:  Withdraw from the situation and talk to someone you trust about your own feelings.

  • When there are warning signs for verbal and/ or physical violence.

Your priority is always your well-being and safety.

Warning signs for violence include a history of violent behavior, severe rage for seemingly minor reasons, possession of weapons and threats of violence.

WHAT TO DO: Get as far away from the person as you can! Go to a public place.

  • When there is influence of mood-altering substances.

No de-escalating technique can help you deal with a person who has taken alcohol and mood-altering drugs (both legal e.g. some anti-depressants, and illegal e.g. hallucinogens).

WHAT TO DO: Disengage from the conversation and talk to them when they’re sober!

  • When no amount of rational intervention seems to work.

There are moments when a person is hell-bent on raging, and the anger will escalate regardless of what intervention you use. It is possible that the strength of the anger is significantly more than the person’s resources to cope. This is signaled by a tendency for the anger to still take off even after slowing down and cooling down, despite the absence of provocation.

WHAT TO DO: Disengage from the conversation and re-schedule the talk for another time.

  • When there are signs of serious mental health conditions.

While there are no categories of anger disorders in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (the reference of most mental health professionals), some serious mental health conditions are related to anger. In these cases, intensive therapy and/or psychiatric medications may be most appropriate. As a rule, people who suffer impairment of reality testing cannot be expected to be rational or reasonable.

Signs to watch out for: persecutory or paranoid delusions, hallucinations, past history of violence based on delusions.

Chronic and rigid patterns of the use of anger as coping mechanism may point to a personality disorder.

WHAT TO DO: Compassionate understanding is key! However, disengage yourself immediately as some psychotic symptoms are correlated with a tendency towards violence. Refer to the appropriate mental health professional.

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