Anger Management

by Roisin Murray and Wallace Murray

Avoiding violence and aggression

Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.

Lyman Abbott

This page suggests things to do before anger tips over into threatened or actual violence. The topic on Violence and Aggression contains excellent advice for when things have already boiled over, and the topic on Bullying addresses anger in that particular form. Aggression may also feature in unacceptable behaviour such as showing off, failure to delegate, foul language, wilful discrimination, selfishness, and passing the buck.

Often, what scares us about anger is the possibility of violence. The risk is remote, if real. Only some ten per cent of the times people get angry involve aggression or violence, often when they feel unheard. Avoiding it is a matter of acknowledging their right to their emotions, and helping them find better ways of dealing with the issues.

Danger signs

Signs of anger can give you valuable time to plan your tactics. The telltale signs include

  • Muscle tension, showing up in clenching fists and jaw-muscles, taut neck tendons, visible throbbing at the temples, teeth grinding and so on
  • Changes in skin tone and temperature, as people sweat, flush or go pale
  • Changes in voice tone and pace – some people speed up and raise their voice when getting angry, while others go deathly quiet. If you know them, the thing to watch out for is changes from their normal way of being. (It’s as well to remember that some people simply speak faster and louder to emphasise a point they are trying to put over.)

Substance abuse

Substance abuse can cause sudden mood swings, so affected people may become beside themselves with very little warning. Be wary of this if engaging with someone who may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Rarely, such swings may arise from health conditions or medication. You might want to take mood swings as warning signs in themselves.

If push comes to shove

The first thing to do in the face of someone else’s anger is to protect yourself by buying time to carry out calming techniques: listen to what they have to say; validate (or if it’s the boss, acknowledge) their right to that opinion; state your point of view assertively; agree next steps, if appropriate, and/or walk away, if necessary.

Remember your right to hold your opinion. Recognise that the other person has the right to their opinion, but that this does not entitle them to become aggressive. (You’ll find more good advice in the topics on Bullying, Confidence, Assertiveness, Difficult People, and Mental Toughness.)

General rules

Naturally, there’s an element of playing things by ear when dealing with people, particularly those in a heightened emotional state. However, a broad rule of thumb is to take the following actions.

  • Protect yourself emotionally and physically – anger can be catching, so disassociate yourself from what’s going on, breathe deeply and slowly; ask yourself what is really going on. According to circumstances, you may need to protect yourself physically by staying beyond arm’s length, and perhaps noting the quickest route to getting behind a barrier. You’ll find other useful tips on managing your internal state in the topics on NLP and Nonviolent Communication.
  • Really listen to them, as they may have been angered by feeling not heard/ignored (you might want to visit the topic on Listening Skills, which contains many useful tips in this area).
  • Acknowledge their emotional state and its cause, without buying into either. (‘I can see you’re angry and if I‘ve got this right, it’s because you feel that....’)
  • Encourage them to relax physically by counting to ten, breathing slowly and deeply and dropping their shoulders. Some people say counting to ten is not enough, but the idea is to buy time to get more oxygen into the brain so they can think more effectively.
  • Help them understand and ask them to explain calmly to you why they are angry. Try to get them to focus on the facts, not their interpretations.
  • Suggest arranging a time and place to discuss ways forward and plan suitable action – whatever the outcome of that action, they’ll at least feel listened to. That in itself is likely to reduce the risk of violence.