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Dealing With Angry People

Posted by georgiannasaysjustdoyou on August 3, 2010


I have had a lot of requests to write about this topic, so this is the first of a series that will appear from time to time.

Dealing with angry people is tricky because you have to do a lot of assessing before you figure out what you want to do.  Depending on their mental health and their explosiveness, there could be safety considerations.  For the purpose of this blog, we are going to focus on the angry person you do not know personally and where safety is not your primary factor.

I used to work on a hotline for several years.  We would get all kinds of callers.  A majority of them were seeking some sort of assistance or service.  Periodically we would get really angry callers.  They were sometimes swearing at us, name calling us, telling us just what was wrong with us and sometimes questioning our intelligence.  If you are on the receiving end of this kind of tirade, it is difficult to sit, listen and be patient.

I would train the volunteers and staff to focus on what the issue was versus the emotion driving them to be so vulgar and hostile.  While there is a limit to what should be tolerated, most callers could be diffused with positive inquisition.  We would listen to the problem and apologize if it seemed that there was some injustice done (even if it wasn’t by us).  For example, they had called 15 different places and they felt they were getting the run-around and that no one really wanted to help.  We can all empathize with that.  So we try to start again and see if we can be helpful.  We say we are sorry and that it truly did sound like a frustrating experience.  I am not saying that people calm down immediately, but often people want to be heard and they want to understand their results.  If they cannot be helped, then it is important for them to know why.

It is not YOU they are angry with, it is the system or the situation you represent.  It is possible they have never met you before, or the only context is in the role that they need to interact with you on (for example, if you are a social worker, you represent power and possibly a history of bad experiences).  It could be that they have had so many bad experiences that they walk into the conversation with you swinging and ready to defend.  This where peoples baggage usually comes out (like racism, sexism, elitism…and so on).

It will help you to remember that it is not about you.  They would behave the same if you did not cross their path and some other poor soul was there instead.  Feeding into their anger often is fuel for them to keep going.  Confronting them with hostility is a lot like arm wrestling.  The more you push, the more they push regardless of who started it.

Always be aware of your personal space, and keep a safe distance if they are in front of you.  Be patient and use good listening language.  Be mindful of your body language as well.

I have sometimes been the angry caller.*   I am very aware of my emotions, so I usually start by saying, I’m not mad at you…I am mad about the situation and I am hoping you can help me.  If they respond in a supportive way, I am diffused even if they cannot help me.  I think we have all been there.  So put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see if you can empathize.  Think about what you can do to improve the dynamic.  If you don’t have to interact with the angry person, then don’t.

We don’t know what someones life experience has been and how it is informing their behavior towards the world.  If they are angry, we can assume some of it at least, has not been good.

Do you have helpful ideas for folks on how to diffuse anger in these kinds of situations?

I don’t have the answers, but I always have thoughts.  Won’t you share yours?

* [A thought here…being angry is not wrong, it is an emotion…how you use your anger is a different story].

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2 Responses to “Dealing With Angry People”

  1. If you can observe anger without becoming emotionally involved at the feelings level yourself, you have truly arrived. Congratulations!! You are balanced, elevated and well on your way to enlightenment.

    Great topic. Thanks, Georgianna…

  2. This is a great article! Several years ago I worked in a call center and wow the angriness that I had to take on a daily basis was insane so I can really relate to this wonderful message.

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