In the first part of How to Extinguish Anger, I wrote about ineffective ways of responding to anger. This can be confusing because most people think there are only two options:
Option 1: Tell off the person who just told you off.
Option 2: Say nothing and be a doormat.
Both are ineffective, though. Being a doormat is no better than lashing out. Neither strategy works for reasons that I described in the last post. What does work? Listening, understanding and responding appropriately. The appropriate response will depend on the situation. If someone is angry because you made a mistake, then an apology is in order. If someone is angry because you broke something, then it’s appropriate to fix what you broke. It’s important to note that sometimes people are angry for inappropriate reasons. These could include any of the following:
- It’s a misunderstanding.
- They woke up on the wrong side of the bed, are hungry, didn’t get enough sleep, are sick, are drunk or otherwise experiencing a chemical imbalance in the brain that triggers anger.
- They are really angry at someone or something else and have transferred that anger onto you.
I’m sure there are other types of inappropriate anger. You can discuss them in the comments. In these situations, it can take a lot of finesse to figure out the best way to respond. For a misunderstanding, it might be as simple as saying, “Wow, you sound really hurt about that. It was never my intention to hurt you. You are so important to me.” If your spouse is grumpy, then compassionate assertiveness might be in order, such as, “I don’t find you pleasant to be around right now so I’m going to relax out in the yard. Feel free to join me when you are feeling better.” For transferred anger, it might be as simple as saying, “I didn’t deserve that” or “It hurts when you talk to me like that” or “What is this really about?”
Note that one of the most effective ways to reduce someone else’s anger is this: Refuse to become the person the angry person thinks you are. If the angry person thinks you are an asshole and then you go ahead and act like an asshole, it just confirms what the anger person thought. Remember the story I told about the angry guy at the post office? I extinguished his anger by behaving in the opposite manner that he expected me to behave. He thought I was selfish, so I behaved selflessly.
But it takes a lot of strength to remain centered in the face of anger, doesn’t it? Lately I’ve been trying to strengthen my ability to remain calm, centered and collected in the face of other people’s anger. I’m still no expert, but here are some of the strategies that have helped.
- I remind myself that no one’s anger ever lasts forever. Anger always eventually comes to an end. When it ends, rational judgment often returns. All I need to do is wait out the anger. It’s then, once the anger subsides, that the true conversation starts.
- If I don’t think I can deal with the anger without losing my own temper, I put physical distance between me and the other person until I feel stronger and more capable. For instance, not long ago, I accidentally turned off my kid’s handheld gaming device before she’d had a chance to save the game. I committed this fatal error right before bedtime when she was excessively tired. She began screaming at the top of her lungs that she hated me, that I was the meanest mother in the entire world, and that I was lucky she was willing to still look at me. She threw herself on the hotel room bed and banged it with her fists and she screamed words like “stupid” and sounds like “Arrrrgh!” I felt that hot ball of anger growing and the urge to shout “Shut the ___ up! Everyone in the hotel can hear you!” So I said, “I’m going to sit in the bathroom until you’re done.” And that’s what I did.
- I remind myself that I’ve been angry before. Anger is like a storm in the brain. I am not my anger. My anger is not me. Similarly, when someone is yelling at me, that person is not the anger. The anger is a delusion—something that is causing the person to behave out of character for a short while. This person is only a flawed human being—just like me. The anger does not make this person a bad person.
- I focus on something that keeps me calm, such as my breathing. This helps me to override the fight, flight or play dead response.
- I vocalize what’s going on inside my head. I might say, “I feel really threatened right now” or “I feel really hurt right now” or “I am feeling defensive right now.” Then I might go on to say that I think a time out is in order.
- I remind myself that anger never feels good. The person who is angry is already suffering. I don’t need to make that suffering worse.
- I remind myself that generosity always feels good and that retaliation always feels bad. I ask myself, “Do I want to feel good about this or bad about this?” I try to talk myself into being generous so I can give the angry person the gift of peace of mind. In this way, I know I will feel good in the end.
- I imagine how unhappy my life would be if I didn’t have the ability to communicate and be a big person. I think of how my friendships would suffer, how my marriage would suffer, and how my career would suffer. This allows me to find compassion for people who lack positive communication skills and who lack the ability to act big.
And, in the end, if I lose my temper, I remind myself that I am human and that tomorrow is another day.
You will find more advice on how to defuse your own anger in this post. What strategies do you use to keep your cool in the face of someone else’s anger?
About the picture that accompanies this post: I took a bunch of photos with my phone these past few weeks. I was surprised how nicely some of them turned out given the lack of definition that a phone camera has. I thought it would be fun for you all to come up with motivational captions for the photo that link it to the content of the post. You know, captions like, “Sometimes the only good thing about any given day is that it’s finally over.” What caption should go with this photo?
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.