When someone around us loses their temper, our natural defensive tendency is to match their intensity and also become offensive. This response usually only serves to pour gasoline onto the fire. Although counter-intuitive, a calm, measured response can de-escalate the situation.
Let’s talk about some tactics for defusing anger:
- Breathe. Calm yourself, take time to think, present yourself as someone who is in non-reactive mode.
- Preserve their dignity. Respond in a respectful way. Sometimes moving the conversation to a private (but safe) setting spares them the added embarrassment of losing it in public. An audience can also fuel additional emotional explosion.
- Acknowledge the incident and its impact upon the person. Language like “I certainly understand being angry in situations like this” communicates that you are taking their concern seriously and respectfully. Denial, minimization, projecting blame elsewhere, or sweeping it under the rug only serve to incite further rage.
- Listen actively. Reflect back what you hear. Time is your friend, so give them time for their body chemistry to self-regulate. People want to be heard and understood.
- Be non-defensive and don’t take it personally. Although difficult, try to reframe their aggressiveness toward yourself as “They need a target for their anger and must view me as strong enough to take it.”
- Ask questions for clarification without it seeming like interrogation. Tone is important so they do not feel attacked back. Avoid an argumentative tone. This is not a competition and winning the battle likely means losing the war.
- Be calm, but intently focused upon them. Speak a bit more slowly, calmly, and lower in timbre. There is tremendous power in calm presence.
- Identify and align with the healthy part of their message. (Any healthy part of their message!) For example, if someone is irate and projecting blame following an accident, language such as “I admire the fact that you really care about the safety of those around you” can help you align and reduce defensiveness.
- Seek to problem-solve together. Try to identify one reasonable next step; even if it is setting time for a problem-solving meeting about their concern.
- When indicated, accept responsibility for a mistake. Taking a one-down position from a stance of strength can be very disarming.
De-escalation skills can prevent a bad situation from getting even worse. Remember: Calm is just as contagious as anger.
Contributed by Bob VandePol, Director of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services' Employee Assistance Program.