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UIC TA Handbook - Dealing With Angry People

By Geraldine Piorkowski

Former Director

and

Robert Lees

Former Clinical Director
UIC Counseling Center

 

Viewing arguments as a right-or-wrong situation is detrimental to both parties. Nobody likes being wrong, or losing, and it is too stressful to always have to win or to be right. It is important to view arguments as situations where people differ in their appraisals. The mistake most people make is in thinking that being different is bad, and each tries to force the other to see it as they see it. This perpetuates and intensifies the anger. Avoiding the right/wrong issue will make it easier for you to listen to the other person's anger.

Listening to Anger

Listening to anger is much more than sitting down, being patient and letting the other person blow off steam. Listening means making a concentrated effort to under­ stand what the other person is angry about. Learning to listen is a skill that takes time and practice to develop, but here are some specifics that will help you get started:

  • Take a deep breath inhaling very slowly and deliberately. Count to five to yourself while inhaling and exhaling. This will help you relax and make it easier for you to listen.
  • Do not interrupt. Interruption escalates the situation. It communicates that you are not listening. If you have the urge to interrupt, take a deep breath and remind yourself to listen.
  • Be aware of your body language. Good eye contact and attentive body posture are nonverbal signals that you are listening.
  • Ask for elaboration to get the whole picture. Use open­ ended questions or probes e.g. "What happened next?" or "I'm not sure who was involved."
  • Summarize in your own words what you think the other person is saying, especially what the person is feeling. Ask if you have captured the message.
  • Acknowledge the positive wish or desire that's being frustrated e.g., "You want to do a good job here so it's frustrating when there are no keys" or "you want to be treated with respect so it's upsetting when you're ignored.
  • If the other person says that you don't understand, explain that you want to. Ask for some examples that will help clarify the situation. Make sure you take responsibility for not understanding. Saying "you don't make sense" will only escalate the situation or cause the person to with­ draw and create more anger.
  • After the other person is finished, explain calmly the situation from your perspective e.g. "I wasn't trying to ignore you, I was just listening intently to the phone caller." Or "I honestly have no idea what happened to your wallet but I'll try to find it for you."
  • If the other person says you do understand, ask what you can do together to resolve the situation. Agree to a solution only if you can implement it. Otherwise, the provocation will repeat itself, triggering more intense anger. Even if the only response you can make is "I'll look into it" or "I'm sorry – I’ll pay more attention next time", your response communicates a cooperative attitude which is helpful in defusing anger.
  • If you disagree with the other person, it is still important to remember to validate their feelings. Responding with "you shouldn't feel that way" inevitably creates a power struggle that escalates the current problem, causing anger to build. The best strategy is to help the other per­ son clarify expectations. Then, focus on a solution that benefits both of you, as opposed to benefitting only one of you.
  • In a group it's often helpful to generalize from a specific person's anger to the frustration or concerns of the group as a whole. In that way, the specific person's anger can be put into a broader context and the resources of the group can be mobilized to problem-solve.
  • Distinguish between genuine anger (where a person often needs only to express feelings before experiencing relief) and provocation (anger which is designed to elicit a particular negative response from the recipient). In the former instance, listening empathically is the most helpful response you can make. In the case of provocation, the most important thing to do is not to respond to the baiting and walk away whenever possible

Tactics to Avoid

  • Avoid displays of impatience.
  • Avoid blaming the other person for the "problem".
  • Avoid name calling.
  • Avoid ridiculing the other person by saying it's silly to get angry over "such a little thing".
  • Avoid pointing out all the other person's past failures.

More important than the specific strategies discussed, helping the other person work out his/her anger requires an attitude that implies a willingness to give emotional support and be helpful.

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