Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

Defusing anger

Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right.

Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger

Habitual patterns of acting out anger can sometimes develop, with the anger being directed against others or turned it inwards against the self, often leading to unhelpful consequences. We need to understand our own or the other person’s reaction and identify the feelings connected with the anger.

If people feel they have been listened to and their feelings understood, they are more likely to calm down. Talking about the feelings underlying anger enables those feelings to be dealt with more speedily and without damage to relationships.

Underlying feelings

Certain other feelings often underlie anger:

  • Hurt
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • The sense of an unmet need.
  • I felt angry the other day when I asked to talk to you about my objectives and you told me you did not have time to talk to me.
  • I felt hurt because you did not seem to think my view was worthwhile.
  • I need to feel acknowledged as a contributing member of the team.
  • I fear that you are not going to involve me.

Use of empathy

Genuine expressions of empathy help a person to feel understood, so they are likely to calm down and talk more about the situation. (You do not have to agree with someone’s feelings, but you do need to accept that that is how they feel/see the situation.)

Use of body language

Use voice and body language to match and pace theirs (see Rapport). This helps establish rapport and reassure the other person. Once you’ve reached this stage, you can start to invite them to think and consider options.

You have a choice

You have a choice about how you deal with an angry person:

  • You do not have to put up with aggressive or difficult behaviour
  • You can choose to leave; ask to discuss matters when they have calmed down, and/or ask them to change their behaviour
  • Remember, your safety is the first consideration. Trust your judgement.