7 ways to handle a hothead without blowing your top
By Paula Spencer Scott
It’s never fun to deal with an angry person, whether we’re talking about a hothead who’s quick to anger or a chronically angry grouse. Unfortunately, none of the natural reactions that an angry person inspires—defensiveness, fear, or getting mad yourself—tend to be productive.
What’s more effective: These seven tactics. According to experts, careful responses can help you counter a hothead without losing your head.
1) Let the angry person know you understand.
What this sounds like: “I understand that you’re really angry right now that I missed our appointment.” “Oh, wow, you seem really mad that the doctor’s office never called back.” “You’re mad that I ate that last brownie—is that it?”
It’s important to be specific, to hit home the message to the other person that he or she is truly understood. Don’t just say, “I understand what you’re saying.”
Keep the focus on the other person’s emotions. Don’t say, “I understand because I’ve been there, too.” The upset person doesn’t care; in the heat of the moment, he feels like his experience is unique.
Why it helps: The tactic known as “reflective listening” or “active listening” is a basic building block to all kinds of effective communication, says psychologist Steve Sultanoff, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. Especially with someone who’s seething with anger, it’s not enough for you to realize that he or she is upset (which tends to be pretty obvious). You need to demonstrate that realization to the upset person by saying so.
The effect of simply stating what’s behind the anger is like
pouring cool water on a fire. “As humans, we have a tendency to feel connected when another person gets us,” Sultanoff says. “Repeating back what you’re hearing the angry person say is both connecting and calming.”
2) Solicit what the angry person wants from you.
What this sounds like: “What is it you want or need right now?” “How can I help you?” “How do you envision the outcome of this in terms of what I could do?”
Why it helps: Most anger develops when the person perceives the world (or situation) as unfair, according to Sultanoff. “Anger is generating energy to get the unfair thing fixed,” he says. Sometimes the anger stems from a perceived wrong: You or someone else did (or is perceived as having done) something upsetting—forgot a birthday, broke a prized possession. Sometimes, though, the anger stems from a bigger sense of being wronged—the person lost a job, his or her partner left, or he or she has a tough medical diagnosis, for example. But nobody wants to listen to endless ranting. So cut to the chase by moving the conversation (even if it’s mostly one-sided barking, so far) to a more proactive realm. Basically you’re saying, in a nice way, “So what do you want me to do about it?”
3) Offer what help you can.
What this sounds like: This can take several forms. You may be able to fill the desire: “Let me see if I can call the doctor for you and find out what the delay is.” You may hear that an apology is desired, if you accept some fault for the situation: “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the snack I ate was something you were saving for yourself. Please accept my apology—I’ll buy you a replacement.”
Or you may decide that it’s not within your power to help. If so, express that clearly: “I wish I could stay longer today to help, but I can’t.” Or, “I know you’re mad about being fired and want your old job back, but I can’t do anything about that. It is what it is.”
Sometimes it’s within your power to help, but you choose not to— that’s setting a boundary, and it’s perfectly okay. Express it as a “can’t” rather than a “don’t want to”: “I’m sorry, I wish I could help you with that, but I can’t today.”
Why it helps: You want to keep moving the situation along in a productive way. After the person expresses what he or she wants, decide what, if anything, you’re able do, and say so.
4) Set limits on what you’ll tolerate.
What this sounds like: “I can see you’re really angry, but you’re taking it out on me—and if you care about me, you’ll stop.” Note that this works better with strong, close relationships, such as between family members or close friends.
For anyone, it’s reasonable to say calmly: “Look, I’m willing to listen, but you have to stop shouting.” Or, “I can see that you’re upset about X. But if you want to talk about it and get my help to resolve it, you have to quit attacking me.”
Still being berated or screamed at? It’s okay to quit the conversation. And if you feel physically threatened, leave. You have that power.
Why it helps: “Some angry people need to vent it out of their system before they’ll engage with you,” says Ken Robbins, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Even if the person is overreacting and exhibiting anger that feels out of proportion, don’t argue or get drawn into a defensive ping-pong match.”
While the other party has a right to feel anger (or any other emotion), he or she doesn’t have the right to turn it on others in a threatening way. If the ranting persists, calling the person on it in a non-accusatory way can sometimes help him or her snap out of it.
5) Accept they are doing the best they can.
What this sounds like: Literally say to yourself something like, “Bob must be having a bad day.” Or “Sue misunderstood me, but blowing her top is just the way she copes.”
Why it helps: Reframing another person’s anger actually changes the way your brain responds to it, according to a study in the November 2011 issue of the journal Psychological Science. By consciously telling yourself, “It’s not my fault he’s angry” or “She must be having a bad day,” you can actually eliminate the electrical signals associated with the negative emotions that are triggered when we see angry faces, the researchers found.
“You can see this as a kind of race between the emotional information and the reappraisal information in the brain,” says Stanford researcher Jens Blechert, who trained subjects to adjust their attitudes before viewing an angry face, then evaluated brain activity. Emotional processing (how we react to anger) moves through the brain through one circuit, but consciously reappraising the situation uses another route and modifies the emotional reaction.
Mustering some empathy for a barking boss or seething family member isn’t easy, Pepperdine’s Sultanoff says. But doing so helps move you out of the natural gut reaction to being yelled at, which is defensiveness. “When we’re defensive, we’re taking care of us, not the other person,” he says. And that, he adds, can lead to a downward spiral. Instead, try telling yourself that the person is doing the best they can — “even when the best they can do is pretty crappy.”
6) Accept that you’re doing the best you can, too.
What this sounds like: “I wish I could have stayed with Jack long enough to fix his computer, but I’m late for the gym. I know that others will be upset when I take care of myself, but I have to. I can’t always give and give; it’s okay to give to myself.” Or “I wish I could help Jill, but there’s nothing I can do about her ex-husband being a jerk. I’ll be there when there’s something specific I can solve, but right now all I can do is listen and say, ‘Look, I can’t do anything to change that.’”
Why it helps: Cutting yourself some slack about how you’re dealing with a volcanic personality helps to inoculate yourself against feeling angry or fearful about the interaction. This inner dialog may sound hokey. But you’d be surprised how effective self-acceptance is. Often what’s difficult about disentangling from an angry person is that we try to “fix” their situation even when we can’t. That sucks us into the other person’s emotional outburst and leaves us angry and frustrated, too, or renders us feeling powerless or afraid.
7) Try humor.
What this sounds like: Sultanoff suggests lines like these: “This is beyond my capabilities—let me consult my other personalities.” “I’m sorry I forgot to pick up your prescription—OMG, you caught me playing with my mental blocks!” “I wish I had a magic wand—I’d wave it for you and fix everything.”
Why it helps: Humor can defuse situations that have grown tense, especially within relationships that are close or playful. Just be sure not to make fun of the person you’re trying to help, he says. Humor is best targeted at yourself or the situation.ϖ
Reprinted with permission from Paula Spencer Scott, who is the author of SURVIVING ALZHEIMER’S: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers (www.survivingalzheimersbook.com).