The how-to of dealing with anger

June 17, 2020

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The how-to of dealing with anger

In times of COVID-19, societal tensions and a severe economic downturn, people are becoming increasingly angry.

And that includes your clients, customers or colleagues.

They may seem to be angry with almost anything. They’re being unreasonable. Their conversation may become filled with generalizations like “always” and “never.” Those words often signal that the person using them is not really talking to the person they’re with, they are addressing someone from their past—most likely from childhood.

They’re angry with you because he or she couldn’t safely be angry then.

When someone is in a state of anger the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, takes over and reasoning becomes increasingly difficult. Their anxiety has reached such a peak that the only relief is through anger.

According to most researchers, anger is attributed to several factors such as:

  • Past experiences
  • Behavior learned from others
  • Genetic predispositions
  • Lack of problem-solving ability

We all experience it, some more often than we like to admit. Some recent research indicates that most of us get angry at least once a day. Usually we don’t display it and it passes harmlessly. But in some people, it’s a learned response to difficult situations. A child from a household where there is little serious discord can mostly control their anger. On the other hand, a child from a troubled household will learn anger as a coping mechanism. Perhaps it is the only way he or she can get attention from distracted parents, or the need to be heard over parental arguments, or simply as the only way to get his or her needs met.

There are usually six stages that a person goes through on the pathway to rage and its aftermath.

At each of the first three of these stages, anger is controllable either by the person or by an outside intervention.

Stage one

The person seems irritated, queries everything, challenges you constantly. Their often-persistent questions are ones to which there’s no clear answer.

In reality, they’re not seeking answers. Maybe they’re just seeking a release from overwhelming anxiety You may notice them getting physically closer—like a predator sneaking up on their prey. Whatever you say will probably be wrong.

They may get annoyed at petty things often having nothing to do with you or anything connected with you.

At this stage the anger can be headed off at the pass. Remain calm and answer those questions that you can. Your calmness can prevent escalation. Whatever you do, don’t minimize or belittle their questions or dismiss their concerns as being “irrelevant,” because they are not irrelevant to them.

Of course, you might well get annoyed yourself, and that’s a danger. You’ll become the focus of their growing emotion. Try and turn the questioning or the conversation around so it’s about some other person or object that is separate to you.

Whatever you do, remain respectful.

Stage two

At this stage, a person will often develop a refusal to accept advice or compromise. Sometimes this will be over a particular issue, sometimes it will be more general.

They can become sharp or “snappish.” Little things can quickly become major issues and a focus of the refusal to budge. They may see any change, or any compromise, as a danger, a threat to their safety.

This new refusal to compromise, or even discuss, change or new advice is a “freeze” that the person has gotten into and is emotionally unable to free themselves from.  It’s annoying, yes, but it’s wise to see it for what it is—the second stage of a process leading to an outburst of anger. You may not have even been a party to the first stage, which might have happened hours, or even days, before.

We normally say that anger has a “short fuse” but that is far from being universally true. It can have a very, very long one. The anxiety build-up can take some time before even the first stage of anger appears and then there can be gaps between the stages. However, you may notice a buildup of apprehension, irritability and stubbornness over time

It’s important not to tell the person that they’re wrong—it’s never a good idea anyway as emotionally it makes you an enemy. Try to get them to talk about their fears and their concerns, don’t push them into a corner, give them some space. Again, keep calm.

At this stage phrases such as “In many ways you’re right, I can see that. But I really want to know what in particular is concerning you,” can be very effective. Anger can be diluted by turning the conversation to the specifics of their underlying concerns. Make statements showing that you value the relationship.

This latter tactic is good because it gets the reward, trust and bonding neurochemical oxytocin flowing. This can counter the surge of cortisol which is, neurochemically, behind the anger.

At this stage, dialogue is still possible, if you remain calm, curious, supportive and specific.

Stage three

This comes in the form of a verbal or behavioral outburst.

This stage will rarely be violent or physically threatening to you, if there is harm done it will likely be to themselves or to objects (often ones that they themselves value).

The main damage will frequently be to their relationship support network, or to their standing with you, their colleagues, their firm or their family.

At stage three it may be more difficult for you to remain calm. But the key actions you must take are:

  • Relax as much as you can, do not add fuel to the outburst.
  • Do not argue—tempting as it might be. Use calming words and actions that show no threat to them.
  • Maintain distance between you and the angry person.
  • Be careful not to become a victim. You can, and should, still express your needs of them in this situation, just do it calmly.
  • Be quick to acknowledge any diminution of the onslaught.

Stage four

Involves threats, intimidation and possible violence. This stage is reached when the angry person:

  • Finds themselves in a confrontation with another angry individual
  • Senses that the other person or group is in victim mode (showing fear, indecision or anxiety)
  • Feels that intimidation or even violence is the only path to resolution

The angry individual can often, paradoxically, seem very calm on the surface. Almost rational. However, it’s important to remember that the threats and the possibility of violence as a result of them are very real.

Whatever you do, don’t try to reason with this individual. Almost anything that you say will simply be interpreted by their emotional centers as a provocation and anyway, they are not listening in any meaningful way. If at all possible, leave the situation or insist that they do. Your show of calm strength is your best defense.

If you can’t absent yourself or they won’t, then get help from whatever source you can. You are or could be in danger, but the presence of others will often have a mitigating effect on the actions of the angry individual.

But even at this stage they have a modicum of self-control. They believe that their words or their behavior will somehow resolve the situation, will rectify their unmet emotional or physical need.

Stage five

Loss of control, rage. This stage is not always present and is certainly not inevitable. It is always short-lived, but the angry individual can be very dangerous to themselves and others.

They may suddenly sabotage an important project, or they may even do violence to you, their colleagues, their bosses or themselves.

The only real way to deal with this stage of anger is to back off or to contain the person and prevent self-harm as well as harm to others.

Stage six

Emotional calm. All rage passes, often quickly. The human system cannot maintain the energy level needed for long, it’s not designed to.

After the outburst, the person usually becomes calm, although the anger may reappear if the underlying issues are not dealt with.

There are, however, situations when a person can become angry for no apparent reason and quite suddenly. These are due to hormonal disturbances (in men and women) causing a sudden spike in cortisol, or to a process called methylation which stops the anger-suppressing neurochemical oxytocin from doing its job. This often lies behind sudden temper tantrums in children, and adults.

In this situation there is little either the angry person or anyone around them can do about it except to stay calm and let the anger play out.

In any event, it doesn’t matter what the immediate cause is, the golden rules for handling anger are:

  • Stay calm
  • Don’t dispute or contradict the angry person, but be sure to maintain your boundaries
  • Try to avoid showing your own irritation or anger
  • Stay respectful
  • Leave or get help if you are in any way threatened or verbally abused

Anyway, if you have been, thanks for reading.

Dr Bob

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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