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Apr 01

How Do You Deal With Angry People?

Like most things, how you respond to another person’s anger is probably different depending upon your relationship with them and the circumstance. At the same time, you’ll probably recognize some patterns in how you deal with anger

Do you shut down, clam up, and hope they’ll go away? Do you puff up and try to out-bluster them? Do you start explaining, apologizing, or simply flee the scene?

If any of this sound like you, then you’re probably missing the two most important parts of dealing effectively with someone else’s anger, whether it’s a minor upset or full-blown rage.

First, you’ve probably heard someone say, “They are angry at me.” or “I made them angry.” This is the first fundamental mistake most people make when dealing with anger. They falsely believe that someone else can be angry “with them” or that they “can cause” another person’s anger.

The truth is, another person’s upset, anger, or even rage is never ever about you. It is always about how scared the other person is about whether or not they’re going to get something they value, keep something they value, or lose something they value. In other words, it’s always about them and what they value. Always.

Stop Taking It Personally!

When you realize this you can begin to stop taking other people’s anger personally. And this gives you the freedom to really get underneath their anger and create practical, effective solutions that get to the heart of the matter.

Beth and I co-authored an article about this topic that appeared in this month’s issue (Sept. ’08) of the NonviolentCommunication.com eNewsletter. You can read more about this idea of “not taking it personally” there. But I wanted to expand a little bit on one of the points that we made in that article.

And that’s the second most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with anger. And that’s to apply your sharply focused attention on separating the “stimulus” for anger from the “clause” of anger. I say “sharply focused attention” because this is no simple task to separate stimulus from cause, a specially given most people’s lack of experience or training in distinguishing between the two.

Separating Stimulus from Cause

Take the two statements I used as examples above. Both of these statements imply that the stimulus and cause of the other person’s anger is the person making the statement. In fact, it must’ve been something the person said or did, didn’t say, or didn’t do that stimulated this anger reaction in the other person.

But even if you plug in these facts, the statements still do not get to the root of the anger. “Bill is angry because I didn’t return his phone call” “Mary is angry because I didn’t pick her up at the airport on time.” Again, these actions or inactions are only the stimulus for Bill’s and Mary’s anger.

At the root of the anger is their belief that they’re not getting something they value. In this case it might be something like consideration, predictability, or caring. So if you can apply your sharply focused attention to determining what it is that Bill and Mary might value that’s missing for them, you’re much more likely to begin to have a conversation with them about how important those things are to them and how they might be able to get them in the future.

Not Getting What You Want Never Makes You Angry

But even given all that, it’s important to realize that the bills and Mary’s anger is not caused by the fact they are not getting something that is important to them.

So what is the cause? Both Bill and Mary are afflicted with “should” thinking and have adopted the strategy of “being angry” as the best way to get other people to do what they “should” do.

What is “Should Thinking” you ask? Well, that’s the subject of another post.

Until then, I am committed to your success,
Neill Gibson

2 Responses to “How Do You Deal With Angry People?”

  1. Colleen Lilly says:

    It is true, whenever we are angry we perceive that we are losing something we value. So true!

  2. Beth Banning says:

    Hi Tracey,

    When people are angry and focusing their anger on you it may seem that it’s about you, but it’s not. You may have done something or said something that stimulated their anger, but what they are really angry about is losing something they have or not getting something they deeply want.

    Specifically you asked, do they mean the things they say. Of course because we don’t know the specifics… so please understand that the next statements can only be generalizations.

    When people are angry they often say things they regret later. Is this because they didn’t mean them? We all think things that we wouldn’t intentionally say out loud. Do we mean them? Do they affect our relationships?

    As we said in the article if you can get past the surface words and uncover the values hidden beneath them, the words won’t feel the same way to you.

    The other thing that happens quite often when people say seemingly hurtful things–consciously or unconsciously–what they’re wanting is empathy–someone to understand how they’re feeling. Sadly this is very low-grade empathy and never very satisfying for anyone involved.

    Tracy, we hope this is the quality of support you were looking for and if you would like to discuss specific circumstances we’re happy to do that with you. Please contact us privately.