Have you ever said any of the following to someone who’s angry?
“Take it easy.”
“Hey, don’t take things so seriously.”
“This is not a big deal.”
Generally, these types of statements do not help angry people de-escalate their anger. On the contrary, these kinds of statements may actually make people angrier. When we judge and treat someone else’s anger as trivial and refuse to empathize with the angry person, no one wins; the anger remains as does the unmet need, which sparked the anger in the first place.
Linking Anger with Unmet Needs
From a nonviolent communications perspective, our anger reflects our unmet needs. While in a previous post, I outlined how to manage our own anger, in this post, I will focus on presenting steps from nonviolent communication that we can apply to helping others manage their own anger. We offer our help to others who are angry in order to experience more peace both individually and collectively.
While working with angry social groups in the 1960’s, the late Dr. Marshall Rosenberg first developed the principles of nonviolent communication, which address how to help others work through their own anger. Rather than judge the validity of another’s anger, Rosenberg suggests that we focus on empathically receiving what the other person is experiencing so they can discover themselves what unmet needs have sparked their anger.
Managing Fight or Flight Instincts
Before we review the four specific nonviolent communication steps of helping others manage their anger, we must first address and understand our natural fight or flight instincts when dealing with anger. Through the following personal experience, I will illustrate how I countered my natural fight or flight tendencies when dealing with an angry person. We have very real choices to make in helping others de-escalate and work through their anger in safe environments.
Several years ago, when employed as a manager at a small apartment complex in Northern California, I had to serve a tenant a nasty-gram from the management. While I can’t remember the details of the fine or rebuke from management to the tenant, I clearly remember my encounter with the furious tenant after she had received the negative letter.
Shortly after delivering the letter, I found myself opening my screen door to listen to the angry tenant spew forth a tirade of blame and accusations focused on me although I was merely management’s representative. As she drove into me with fierce words and an aggressive tone of voice, I could literally feel the wave of her hostility enter into my body. In this case, I had to counteract my desire to flee because I had an official post to fill as the apartment manager in residence.
As she vented great frustration, I braced myself physically and emotionally against the sides of my front door and decided to begin listening and asking questions to paraphrase her concerns. As I reflected back her concerns while filtering out her blaming and accusing, she began to slowly relax both her tone and demeanor. Her face mellowed into natural patterns of peace, as did her vocal pitch lessen in strain and tenor as I tried to receive what she had to say without judging her.
After emphatically listening to her frustration and translating her venting into actual unmet needs, we started to communicate as co-humans rather than as enemies to be annihilated. Gradually, I felt the tension release as she recognized the steps she needed to take to speak directly with management about issues unrelated to our relationship with each other at the complex.
At that time, I had not been trained in nonviolent communication principles for managing anger but had experimented and arrived at the same conclusion: while I desired to run away from angry people, I could help angry people find their true needs through structured listening and reframing. This experience cemented my desire to expand my tool set, so I could manage facing others’ anger with a constructive plan.
Without a plan, it is only natural that when we encounter an angry person our natural tendencies of fight or flight kick in. Neurologically speaking, we are wired to “survive” once we encounter ourselves or another in this primal mode of anger. To counter the wave of survival instincts that kick in, we can learn to stay quiet and not make any sudden move to blame or accuse another person when others are angry and still reasonably nonthreatening.
When I opened my front door to find the angry tenant ready to chew me out, I strongly desired to dismiss her and shut the door. Yet, I did not follow my instinct because I had a duty to carry out as the official apartment manager.
We do not always have official duties to carry out, but our willingness to counter fight or flight instincts in situations will benefit our closest relationships where reasonable displays of anger are involved. In safe situations, we can learn to counter our normal fight or flight tendencies to empathetically help others through their anger.
Warning: There are Natural Dangers When People Are Angry
However, there is good reason that our fight or flight tendencies kick in when others are unreasonably angry, and we are scared. We can be in very real situations of physical, emotional, or other psychological danger when others get angry. So, in sharing these nonviolent principles of helping others through their anger, I am not suggesting that we stick around with angry individuals who can and will hurt us.
As conflict theorists, Hocker and Wilmot explain in their textbook: Interpersonal Conflict, “Verbal abuse leads to escalation or withdrawal, hinders conflict resolution, and lowers the dignity and self-esteem of all parties…When another’s expression of anger, rage, or contempt burns out of control, you have a responsibility to protect yourself.”
They also suggest that “Listening to belittling; hostile blame; ridicule; demeaning or untrue accusations; sarcastic name-calling; contempt; or actual physical threats is not good conflict management. The other person should be told, firmly and consistently, “I don’t listen to this kind of talk. I can’t hear anything important you’re trying to say when you’re demeaning me.”
When threatened with verbal abuse, we should follow our instincts to protect ourselves. Please follow this link to find both verbal and non-verbal techniques to help defuse others’ anger and interact with an agitated person who may exhibit threatening behavior: http://www.resi-con.com/articles/de-escalation-techniques.html. When possible, we should try to stop the verbal abuse and find safety as soon as possible.
When to Intervene When Someone is Angry
Setting the truly dangerous cases of anger aside, we may encounter situations with both strangers, acquaintances, and loved ones that do not necessitate our escape from the situation. Instead, we need to empathically engage with angry others without expressing blame or criticism. There are very clear and tangible steps we can take to help others manage reasonably unconstructive patterns of expressing anger.
The Four Steps for Helping Others Manage Their Anger
In nonviolent communication, to help others work through their anger, we focus on the following four steps to uncover unmet needs:
First, we help solidify what the other has observed or experienced related to the anger
While, most likely you will verbally express what you heard the other person observe, you may remain quiet during this phase if mere listening is required to be empathetic.
“When you read the letter from management, you….
“When you received the phone call from your boss…”
“When you turned on the news and heard…"
We’re trying to help the angry person pinpoint what observation stimulated the feelings of anger (and an unmet need) that they are currently experiencing.
Second, we help the other identify their personal feelings.
In this second step, we link the person’s expressed observation with a particular feeling that may be much more specific than just “it sounds like you were angry.”
Without wasting energy on blaming or accusing the other person, we help the other person express their own personal feelings. We help them share specific, accurate personal feelings like “I feel overwhelmed” or “I am confused or surprised.” As the listener, we may incorrectly identify the angry person’s main feelings. But, we can gently accept any corrections made to our guesses about the feelings that the angry person may be experiencing.
For example, when I encountered the angry tenant, I said something to the effect of: “It sounds like you were really surprised to receive a letter about this problem instead of just a phone call or a drop by visit.”
During this part of the conversation, I remember the tenant responding in a strong, angry voice with something to this effect: “I wasn’t just surprised. I’m furious that management would send a letter instead of just calling me to talk over the issue.”
The tenant’s comment demanded a further restatement of the observation and the feeling: “It sounds like you are really angry that management chose to send an official letter instead of just reaching out to you by phone to talk over the matter?”
Once, I correctly identified the tenant’s main feelings and the source of her feelings, I could seek confirmation by asking follow-up questions like: “Did I get that right?” or “Is that how you felt?”
The more intense the feelings, the more peeling back of emotions and even more observations we may need to reflect back to help the angry person. Usually we know that we’ve identified their core feelings when some tension has been tangibly released or if there is silence with no more to say on the subject.
But, we have still two more steps to go with understanding the person’s specific needs and helping the person identify ways to meet their unmet needs.
Third, we help the other connect their feelings with a specific need
In search of unmet needs, we now help the other person to connect their expressed observations and feelings with their underlying needs. At this point, as the listener, I may also help move the conversation along by sharing my own personal feelings and empathy so that the angry person doesn’t feel judged or blamed when we’re talking through difficult thoughts and emotions. Naturally, we may all feel vulnerable when revealing our core needs.
Empathizing with the subject of our anger may sound like an unreasonable expectation in the moment. Certainly, we may not be fully capable yet of full empathy in our minds and hearts, but we can imitate constructive behavior as a start. When I braced myself at my front door while the tenant verbally assaulted me, I had to consciously choose an appropriate tone of voice and non-threatening body language to begin the work of uncovering her unmet needs.
In this third step, we may simply ask questions like:
“What do you think you were needing when you received the letter instead of the phone call?
If the other person is stumped and unable to identify a need, we may need to gently suggest possibilities. In this case with the tenant, I could have suggested the following:
“Were you needing a phone call because you wanted to feel more respect?” or “Would a phone call have been lower key and met your need to be treated on more friendly terms?”
There are many different ways to turn a phrase, but identifying the need is key to managing the anger. Once we have confirmed which unmet need is feeding the person’s anger, we can turn to seeking means to fulfilling the unmet need(s).
Fourth, we suggest what might help fulfill an identified unmet need
During this phase, we can help the person brainstorm by asking good follow up questions to paraphrase and seek understanding from the person about different possible solutions.
Suggesting a means for fulfilling an identified need may have been as simple as my asking the angry tenant:
“Would you like to talk directly with management about the letter?” or
“Would you like me to schedule a time for you to talk with management about the issue?”
We may simply need to brainstorm together possible solutions with questions like:
“What do you think would meet your need?” or “What possibilities would you consider for meeting your need(s)?”
Given the diversity of needs we each have, no one question will fit each situation, but we can keep things simple by asking questions. Sometimes, there is no immediate way to satisfy the need, but we can empathize with the other person’s desires to have their needs met.
As I mentioned in my last post, these steps to helping others manage their anger through nonviolent communication processes take time and effort to apply in our daily lives. Yet they are worth our greatest efforts both at home, in the community, and across our country. As we help address other’s unmet needs in an empathetic and sincere way, we are being peacemakers. We literally take the time to help others understand the peace they seek, but do not know how to find on their own.
As we connect with who we really are and what we each need, we will find that we are much more alike than we are different. Accessing that common humanity may curb the appeal of turning outward to blame others rather than looking inward to identify and to fulfill our universal needs for connection, belonging, and harmony.
Emily de Schweinitz Taylor