Who may also be Aggressive, Antagonistic, Argumentative, Confrontational, Destructive, Explosive, Hostile, Intimidating, Threatening, Vicious or even Violent
WHAT TICK US OFF
All of us feel angry at times, but people ‘do’ angry in different ways. Sometimes anger is directed very precisely at us, or at what we’ve said or done. At other times it seems as though it has nothing to do with us, and we’re receiving the full force of
what might have been meant for someone else. It can also come in three temperatures: hot, cold and neutral.
HOW IT CAN HAPPEN
Anger is felt by everyone. It’s a chemical thing, with all sorts of exciting chemicals being triggered off – to aid our survival. When people explode with anger, they are responding externally in the same way as the chemicals are reacting internally – ie wildly!
But – and this might be hard to believe at first – anger only lasts about 20 seconds maximum. The chemicals, after 20 seconds or so, start to subside. So how come some people seem angry for hours or days or for ever? That’s because they follow the chemicals with thoughts. Typically, they start thinking of what the consequences might have been. Or they remember other people and occasions that have ‘made them feel like this’. Or, very commonly, they start plotting revenge! And – not surprisingly – all these thought patterns start producing their own chemicals, and the vicious (= angry) circle goes round and round all by itself.
Sometimes anger is directed appropriately at us, for what we said or did, whether or not we meant to. At other times it can seem directed at us, or indeed at the whole world, for no apparent reason. It’s almost as though the person has no internal compartments for containing it, and it has spread within him or her, and comes whooshing out at any opportunity. (Or, with some people, it seems like every opportunity.)
LET’S NOW EXAMINE THE DIFFRENET TEMPERATURES
Hot anger happens almost instantly, often without warning, and can be really threatening. Some people seem literally to explode, and come over as physically threatening and in-yourface. As they are so incensed, they can seem wildly out of control. They often get really personal with their insults, and it’s sometimes hard to hear what they are actually saying through their heated activity.
Cold anger is very, very calculated. The chemicals have subsided, and in the ensuing calm, the brain plots its next steps: what it is going to do, and how it can make itself felt. It can, therefore, be genuinely chilling. The message is clear. Every single word is clear. And the intention to have the message heard is chillingly clear and deliberate, in a controlled, almost clinically cutting way. And – unlike hot anger, which is pretty instantaneous – cold anger can sometimes be plotted and prepared and lie dormant for a very, very long time indeed.
‘Inactions speak louder than words’
I have a friend who always expresses her feelings and thoughts out loud, all the time. Her boss was the opposite – he sulked in silence. One day we were chatting about how she’d never been able to persuade her boss that she was upset, no matter how much she expressed her feelings. I suggested to her that instead of emoting her way (ie loudly), she tried emoting her boss’s way (ie coolly). The next evening she rang me, excitedly of course. ‘It worked brilliantly. My boss asked me first thing if I’d had a good weekend. Instead of telling him all about my problems, as I used to do (to which my boss used to say automatically “Good”), I just sort of grunted and mumbled “OK”, avoiding eye contact. Five minutes later he came back with a silly query – obviously made up. I just grunted a short answer back. Another five minutes later he rushed back shouting, “What on earth is wrong – I’ve never seen you like this before?” It worked: I got through by using his language (cool), not mine (hot).’
Neutral anger may sound like a contradiction in terms; how can ‘anger’ come over as ‘neutral’? Surely it needs energy – either searingly hot, or deliberately held back and cold? Well, neutral anger is also calculated, but it states the obvious so that the message is simple and clear – rather than reinforced with hot dramatics, or chilling effect.
People from the United States can be especially brilliant at this, and can ‘do’ angry in a very neutral way, eg by saying calmly and factually ‘What you did made me feel very, very angry.’ (And then they leave a potentially endless pause, having said and done all that they chose to do, thus handing the baton over to the other person to accept the responsibility to respond.)
TIPS FOR HANDLING ANGRY PEOPLE
Hot anger can seem to consume the person who’s ‘doing’ it, and there’s usually little point in saying anything until there’s less heat. A key tip is not to take it personally, as you’ll be so mortified inside that you’ll withdraw into yourself and the person will think you’re ignoring them! So, the main things that a hot-anger person needs are:
- not to be ignored, as they’d feel they’re not getting through to you, and so they’d have to increase their signals;
- not to be patronized, such as being told to Calm Down; it doesn’t work when you’re Angered Up!
- not to be outdone; if you start telling them how angry or upset you are about their approach, or anything else, it denies them their agenda and voice;
- to be noticed; good eye contact is important, but soften your gaze and don’t stare!
- to be acknowledged as ‘angry’ on a personal level, then to have some help to move the situation forward, on an impersonal ‘what exactly needs to happen next’ level.
A good way of acknowledging someone who is angry is to respect their position by saying, for instance, ‘You’re right.’ And then leave a jolly good long pause in place for them to consider this. If they don’t hear you (and ‘being’ angry seems to divert all the energy away from the ears), simply repeat it: ‘You’re right.’
And whenever I’ve said this, it has pretty much always taken the wind out of their sails. Or, as one client said, ‘It really took my sails out of the wind, thank you.’ When I asked how, he said that he knew he was right, and now that I knew he was right, he couldn’t ‘do’ angry any more.
Is this being untrue to myself, saying that the other person is right? Not at all – because I truly believe that they are right to feel whatever they feel. (I am not, however, saying that I would feel the same if I were in their shoes.)
‘No, Mr Nicholls’
I was working in a shoe shop in Brighton, between leaving school and starting college. One Saturday, the tallest and secondangriest man I have ever seen came thundering into the shop, pulled me outside and pointed to the window display. ‘I want that pair of shoes for my wife.’ I assumed that the woman a few steps behind him was the wife in question and a quick glance at her feet suggested that the shoes in the window would be much too small. I explained that we put the smallest shoes in the window display, so we could fit more in. I explained that his wife’s feet were not the same size as the shoes in question. I explained that the window dresser was not in attendance (yes, I think I actually used that phrase!) until Tuesday – and none of this worked. He pretty soon turned into the first-angriest man I’d ever seen. Eventually he stormed out of the shop, dragging a rather pale wife but leaving behind a stream of colourful language.
The manager, Mr Nicholls, came up to me, and in his kindly way hit the nail on the head when he gently said ‘Well, Mr Leibling, I don’t think you could have handled that much worse, could you?’ He was absolutely right. I had tried everything except the tips above!
COUNT TO TEN
Cold and neutral anger are highly effective in practice because they are the considered responses to a situation and internal chemical reactions that have already cooled down – so there’s no external ‘situation’ to cool down to begin with. (The old suggestions of counting slowly to 10 before responding, or ‘holding your tongue’ or ‘biting your lip’, come to mind here.)
‘Out of the mouths’
I remember being out for dinner with friends. Their three-year-old (who had previously been banished to his room for a minor misdemeanour) came slowly down the stairs. He calmly stopped halfway, paused, and then looked from parent to parent. He quietly said ‘You make me very unhappy’ and then, oh so slowly, turned back upstairs again – leaving the three of us with enormous lumps in our throats.
The principles, however, are exactly the same as for hot anger. For example, with the three-year-old child in the case study we might say something like ‘You’re right.’ (Pause) ‘I’m sorry I made you unhappy.’ (Pause) ‘Come here and tell me what you want me to do.’ (Pause) ‘And we’ll have a big cuddle while I’m listening.’ This:
- acknowledges the person and their feelings;
- acknowledges your own position;
- makes it clear that you intend putting things right, by listening to their thoughts;
- moves the situation forward by putting the event into the past tense, where it belongs; even though the child said, ‘you make me very unhappy’, we contain the event in the past tense.
TIPS FOR HANDLING ANGRY PEOPLE
1. FULL STOPS
After you’ve said what you need to say, shut up! (The full stop prevents you drivelling on and undoing your case or diluting the effect. It also allows the other person space to take on board the implications of what you’ve just said.)
2. RISE TO THE OCCASION
If the other person is standing and you’re sitting, stand up slowly and respectfully, eye to eye (that is, I to I).
3. SPEAK UP
If they’ve been loud and you’ve been quiet, speak just a little more loudly than before, and see how this gets you noticed.
4. BE PRECISE
It can be useful to ask the other person, coldly or neutrally, what exactly they are angry about and what exactly they need from you. Maybe you could do this at the time that they’re ‘doing’ angry, or maybe sometime later – especially if they’ve already stomped off! – in a note or phone call.
Mike Leibling – A Guide To Difficult People And How To Handle Them