Many times, when we have to respond to an angry person, anger has hijacked their thinking. Their emotions have taken over their reasoning to the point they cannot be “reasoned with.” How do you respond when the anger is pointed at you?
We use different systems of our brains for logical reasoning and for emotional thinking. The pre-frontal lobes do the logical, cognitive thinking and the limbic system is where the emotions are housed. In most situations, our brains switch back and forth normally and naturally between the pre-frontal lobes and the limbic system, but when anger or any other emotion takes over, logical reasoning is not going to happen. That is what I describe as “hijacked by our emotions.”
I recall an instance when I wanted very much to respond to an angry person but could not. I was driving and I unintentionally cut someone off. The other driver was in my blind spot (that’s what I’ll blame the near-accident on) and I changed lanes. He was good enough driver that he saw and avoided the accident, honked, gave me a single digit salute, sped up and cut in front of me. I wanted so much to say, “I am sorry! That was totally my fault! You have every right to be angry. I have been scared into driving a lot more carefully and …” You get the picture. I am glad he didn’t stop, and that we didn’t say anything to each other. I am pretty sure that his logical reasoning had been hijacked by his anger.
On another occasion I had to have a conversation with an angry person. She had been wronged by the appliance that the company I worked for had sold her (in other words, her new refrigerator turned out to be a lemon). She was mad. I was the delivery guy. I followed the following suggestions from Dr. Gary Chapman’s book, “ANGER, Taming A Powerful Emotion.”
Listen to the person. The best thing you can do is hear them out and begin to understand their story.
Listen to the person. Having heard their story, ask the angry person to repeat it. This shows that you really want to understand what happened and that you are not condemning their anger.
Listen to the person. Ask additional questions to clarify the situation. It can take three or four rounds of listening for the angry person to get out all of his or her concerns.
Try to understand his/her plight. Ask yourself if you would be angry in the same situation. Instead of saying, “I know just how you feel.” Try saying something like, “I hear that you are angry. I think I would be angry if that had happened to me.”
Express your understanding of the situation. Speak with compassion (lower the tone of your voice and speak more slowly than normal); affirm the person’s feelings of anger.
Share any additional information that may shed light on the subject. At this point you may help the person realize that you have not wronged them, or if you have, it was not intentional.
Confess any wrongdoing and seek to make right the wrong you have committed. If the person’s anger is valid and you have wronged him, this is the step to take, the right thing to do.
When I left her home, she had a new, working, refrigerator; I had a nearly new one that would go to recycling. I think she was okay with the way her anger was resolved, and I know that our company was pleased that she didn’t do what she had threatened to do!
Wrong Response #1: Trying to Cap the Anger
Parents can be guilty of this. “If you can’t talk to me without yelling, then shut up and go to your room.” Try taking two swallows from a Pepsi, then screw the cap back on the plastic bottle, and shake it as hard as you can for the next minute. You now have a visual picture of what is happening inside of the child or coworker whose parent or boss just made that statement. When the cap comes off you will have rage at the top of the anger continuum! If the cap never comes off, you might have a depressed child or one who has mastered the fine art of passive-aggressive behavior…the implosion side of anger. Do you really want that child choosing your nursing home some years from now?
Wrong Response #2: Mirroring the Behavior
You might be able to yell louder and longer than the angry person. You might be able to come up with worse names to call them. You might even get compliance from the angry one, but you will not get agreement.
One person hijacked by anger is enough! A fire will burn itself out faster if you don’t throw gasoline on it. When the angry person is spewing out words and you engage in argument with him, it is like throwing gasoline on the fire. As long as you continue to throw gasoline the fire will continue to rage.
An angry person needs someone who cares enough to listen long enough to understand the pain. They need someone who listens carefully enough to identify with the person’s anger, wisely enough to express understanding, and courageously enough to respond with a gentle, truthful answer…an answer that resolves the issue that caused the anger.
Together you can help find a healthy response and solution, and stop the hijacking.