“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” – Gloria Steinem
A team member’s or customer’s anger can run the gamut from smouldering silence to an outright temper tantrum. Periodically people capture the more public examples on cell phones and we get to witness spectacular meltdowns as they go “viral” on social media. But, when it happens in our own workplaces, it’s not so funny. We can feel threatened, experience extreme stress and risk very real emotional and physical trauma. On a team level, such an incident can leave relationships in tatters. An important part of team building involves developing the capacity to manage emotional situations effectively. And anger must top the list of the “most-feared” emotional encounters. I’d like to share an incident I witnessed.
As I cooled my heels in a rural hospital waiting room a few months ago, I had the (uncomfortable!) opportunity to watch a skilled health care professional handle a very loud and angry person. The waiting room was quite full when an older gentleman came in from the blowing snow accompanied by a woman, possibly his wife, who had clearly been struggling to navigate the snow-covered, slippery sidewalks with her walker. He was obviously concerned and visibly upset as he guided her to a chair. As he approached the registration desk, the receptionist started to apologize for the condition of the sidewalks. She had barely begun to extend the clipboard to him when the tirade started. It was loud, abusive and involved flying objects. He was in full rant when a nurse came hustling around the corner and entered the fray. What she did was masterful. It took her a good ten minutes to get him calmed down but she was able to let him vent, move him smoothly to a quieter area away from the main audience and get him refocused on the original reason for the visit.
Here’s what she did, and what you can do when you face an angry person:
- Keep your distance. Don’t invade their space if you can help it and don’t ever touch anyone. Sounds obvious, but even well-intentioned touching (to re-assure them, for instance) can be misinterpreted and trigger a violent physical retaliation.
- Keep up a calm “front”. When you speak, do so calmly and evenly is re-assuring tones. You may be feeling angry too, but if you communicate that in words or body language, you will intensify their own threat response.
- Validate their feelings (e.g., “I can see that you are very upset.”)
- Never talk down to or contradict an angry person. Never tell them to “calm down”.
- Show that you are listening. Calmly ask questions and use active listening to keep them talking. Remember, they are experiencing a very real physiological response and it may take 20 minutes or more for the hormones to clear the bloodstream. Only then can they actually use the “thinking parts” of their brains.
- If you are a public place where others are being impacted, consider encouraging the person to move with you to a more private location. However, don’t place yourself alone with a person you believe could become violent.
Facing angry people will never be easy or pleasant but you can learn to manage these difficult encounters so that you achieve positive outcomes. Summit Team Building programs such as Emotional Intelligence, Conflict Management and Effective Communications will help your team develop both the necessary skills and positive relationships allow us to benefit from our differences.