Contributed by Nadia Persun, PhD
Anytime I see people having angry altercations, I perk up my ears and observe intently. I watch their displays, not in a sadistic or feeling superior kind of way, but fascinated with how it unfolds: “Will it work for them? Are they going to get what they want with this approach”? I have practically never seen it work, not during my observations in therapy or in personal life. Even on rare occasions where it seems to work in the moment, yielding some win-loss resolution, it never works sustainably. Peace can never be found on a shaky and fake foundation of emotional tyranny, as “Nobody ever forgets where he buried a hatchet.” (Kin Hubbard/Frank McKinney Hubbard). Here are some strategies for dealing with difficult people, organized around the main psychological premises driving their anger: fear and need for control.
Disengage and don’t take it personally. People are energy conservative creatures. Just like most animals attack out of self-defense, hunger or other biological needs, human anger is also goal driven. Most people, even most violent individuals, don’t walk around the majority of the day attacking and abusing others. They lash out in spurts. Behind their violent shield, a threatening individual is feeling threatened. Maybe not by you, but by something or someone. Their anger is related to you only in a way in which some action or expressed feeling of yours has triggered some discomforting emotion within them. Threatening individuals are commonly overwhelmed and scared. Big bullies have deeply hurt and vulnerable cores. They are expanding their toxic energy to produce their angry display as a distorted way to pursue some goal related to their personal sense of safety and significance. Even though the content may be channeled at you, the driving force behind it is related to their personality, upbringing, and prior experiences. Most of their accusations are based on subjective opinions and are very loosely, or not at all, related to you personally.
Avoid ego battles and rides to the past. When it comes to aggression, an unfortunate point of difference between humans and less evolved mammals is the ego. Some people are willing to put their life on the line and injure another person physically or emotionally to protect their ego and restore their injured self esteem. Inflated egos are most vulnerable to the slightest pokes and scratches, which is a common infliction of defensive and confrontational people. Remember that ego injuries are always the deeds of the past. This is why the great focus of most angry people, when they arguing, will be buried in the past. Therefore, at all costs, avoid accompanying them on their voyage there. Drain them by letting them monologue their expired accusations. Avoid discussing with them about who did what, when and why, and how it made them feel, but repeatedly ask how they propose solving this problem now. Remember also that most angry people have a victim mentality. They perpetually feel the world owes them something and other people must fulfill their preferences or needs. What angry people say is almost never factual but emotional in content, related to their fears, frustrations, and bruised ego. Attempting to dialogue with them almost always fails, as raging people are narrowly focused, entitled, and prone to listening only to themselves.
Choose calm and sanity. An angry person is looking for a fight. Through their escalation and unfair accusations, they are asking you to engage. “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength” (Eric Hoffer). So, what is needed in the presence of a hot headed person? A cool headed person. The constructive response is not to indulge them in any action. When they shout, you keep silent or speak softly. When they come close, you increase the distance. When they say a lot, you say nothing or very little. Some people decide to respond, thinking that ignoring a provocation makes them lose and a bully to win. This is contrary to what actually happens. You win by disengaging. You become untouchable and gain control by increasing emotional and physical space. Imagine this situation. You are on a road and the driver in front of you drives dangerously and erratically: swaying wildly sideways, speeding up and pressing the breaks, honking randomly. Should you catch up, open up your window and attempt a discussion on proper driving? Of course not. You shift lanes and drive away, quietly demonstrating your intelligence and preference for safety. De-escalate the angry person in a similar manner, by exiting the scene emotionally or physically, not participating in their drama. Remember also that basic defenses of angry, self-justifying people are projection and denial. You tell them that they are scaring you with their shouting, they tell you are the one yelling. You tell them their words are hurtful, they tell you you told them things ten times worse, plus you are the one who made them angry to begin with. So, what are the ways to negotiate with reality distorters? The short answer is “there are none,” and the longer answer is, “There are none, don’t even try.”
Give out an imaginary cupcake. Cupcakes are sweet , peaceful, calming and smile inducing. Raging people are often in dire need for an imaginary cupcake. A big part of their anger is driven by their belief or feeling that they never get any or someone stole or damaged their cupcakes. So, generously give them one or even a couple, even when they seem to be undeserving of any sweetness. Despite the obnoxious behavior, loud shouting, screeching voices, clenching fists, pointing fingers, red faces and all, most angry people have a sad message. Most likely they are trying to tell you that they are feeling hurt, ignored, disrespected, unappreciated and unloved. Listening and responding to these needs calmly and empathically can serve as the key to getting more cooperation from emotionally agitated people. Just say “I think I understand what is going on here, but feel free to correct me, my friend” and so on. Then offer some reflective listening, validating their concerns to an extent. Tell them something nice and peaceful. Agree with them in theory. Do not assign any blame or argue. Establish a basic premise for peace by appealing in some way to the dormant, healthy side of their personality by extending to them some sense of grace, validation, and acceptance.