How to Handle Other People’s Anger Like a Pro

Dealing with other people’s anger can be challenging, confusing, and sometimes terrifying—especially if it’s someone we’re close to like a spouse, parent, or co-worker.

In this article, I’m going to teach you how to think about and handle other people’s anger like a professional psychologist would.

Armed with some insider information about how anger really works and a handful of effective tips for dealing with it, not only will you be better at managing other people’s anger but you’ll feel more confident doing it.


1. Validate the anger, put boundaries on the aggression.

The first thing to understand about anger is that it’s fundamentally different than aggression.

Anger is the emotion we feel when we believe we’ve been wronged. Aggression, on the other hand, is the act of expressing our anger, mostly in terms of what we do and say.

Most of us aren’t afraid of other people’s anger; we’re afraid of their aggression—of what their anger might lead to:

  • Insults, sarcasm, put-downs, shouting, and other forms of aggressive speech.
  • Physical acts of aggression from slamming doors to physical abuse or shunning.
  • The stress, loneliness, anxiety, guilt, awkwardness, or any number of painful feelings that often follow from a major fight or confrontation.

This distinction between anger and aggression is critical because we need to handle each very differently. Unfortunately, our instincts for how to do this tend to be dead wrong.

Instinctively, we tend to get defensive in the face of anger and say (or think) things like:

  • Why do you have to get so angry every time I bring up my parents?
  • You need to calm down and listen to what I’m actually saying.
  • If you weren’t so angry, we could handle things like a mature adult instead of acting like a child.

The common theme is that you’re being critical of their anger, of their emotional experience. The problem is, anger isn’t really the problem. None of us have direct control over how we feel emotionally. And to be criticized or judged for something we don’t really have control over feels terrible.

This why high-anger situations tend to quickly devolve into unproductive shouting matches. We pour fuel on the fire when we criticize or judge people for their emotional experience of anger.

Then, to make matters worse, we don’t really deal with the other person’s aggression in a smart, consistent way. What I mean by that is, we are generally not good at being assertive about setting and enforcing boundaries on aggressive behavior—including the effective use of consequences.

When your spouse, for example, gets angry and ends up shouting and berating you, what’s the consequence? Most people respond to aggression in two standard ways:

  • They get aggressive back. They shout back, they point out the other person’s mistakes, dredge up past wrongs, etc. Unfortunately, this only justifies the other person’s anger in their mind and reinforces it and the aggression—making it more likely to happen in the future.
  • They ignore it or give in. Because we’re afraid of future or increased anger and aggression, we don’t establish clear lines about what we will and won’t tolerate when it comes to aggression. And even if we do, we don’t enforce them. Instead, we give in, tolerate, sometimes even take responsibility for other people’s aggressions—all in an understandable attempt to keep the peace. The problem is, this too ends up reinforcing the aggression, making it more likely to happen in the long-term because the other person learns that it’s okay and that they can get away with it.

In short, our default tendency is to be harsh with other people’s anger and either be overly accommodating or equal harsh with their aggression.

The solution is to flip your strategy. When confronted with an angry partner or co-worker, for example, you want to validate their anger and put firm but respectful boundaries on their aggression—and be willing to follow through with consequences!

For example, suppose your spouse starts getting really defensive when you ask them to help out more with cleaning around the house. They start criticizing you for not doing more, explaining how they do all the hard work, and how selfish it is of you to even ask that.

How might you respond?

First, start by validating their anger and frustration. You might say something like:

It seems like you’re feeling angry, maybe because it sounds like I’m criticizing you. I really do appreciate everything you do and maybe I should have lead with that. I’m just struggling with the housework and thought we could talk about different ways to keep things cleaned up.

This makes it less likely that they spiral into defensiveness, which isn’t in anyone’s best interest. Often, just this little move alone will help dramatically.

But suppose simple validation doesn’t work, and they respond with something like:

This is bullshit! You’re just trying to get me do do your work for you. You’ve always been lazy.

This is aggression that needs to have firm boundaries put on it.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Be clear about what constitutes aggression that you’re not willing to tolerate. Take some time to write down the types of aggressive speech and behavior you want to put boundaries on.
  • Next, determine how you’re going to respond if that aggression comes up. For example: If my spouse starts criticizing me, I’m going to ask them once to stop. If they don’t, I’m going to leave the conversation.
  • Anticipate tough emotions when enforcing boundaries. Understand that enforcing your boundaries and the consequences of other people’s aggression isn’t going to be easy. You may feel guilty, like you’re responsible for fixing the issue. You may feel worried—worried that they’ll stay angry and do something stupid. In any case, don’t let yourself be caught of guard by this emotional friction to enforcing your boundaries.
  • In a calm moment, share your plan with the person who’s anger and aggression are an issue. For example, take a few minutes one Sunday afternoon and explain to your spouse that the way they express their anger and get aggressive really bothers you. And that from now on, here’s how it’s going to be handled.

Of course, if someone else’s aggression is so extreme that you’re in danger, you should seek professional assistance or simply call the police.

If you see a therapist or counselor, they can be a resource for helping you make a plan moving forward. Your primary care physician can as well. There are also many independent resources like The Hotline for helping people in abusive or dangerous domestic situations.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Instead of criticizing people’s anger, learn to validate it. Let them know that you understand that they’re angry and that it’s okay for them to feel that way. Many, many anger issues will resolve with that simple step.
  • Set and enforce clear boundaries on people’s aggression. Avoid meeting their aggression with your own aggression or rolling over and accepting responsibility for it. Make a clear plan for managing their aggression and steel yourself to follow through on it.
  • In the case of abuse, always seek professional help.

2. Look for the function of their anger.

From the earliest ages, most of us are taught to view painful or difficult emotions like diseases—foreign invaders out to harm us that should be quickly eliminated or at least ignored.

Just think about your own childhood: How often were you told to cheer up, calm down, put on a happy face, go to your room until you’re not so angry anymore? Unintentionally, comments like these communicate that how we feel is bad, and by extension, that we’re bad for having them.

We’re taught to treat emotions as problems to be solved or avoided.

What we’re not not is how to listen to our emotions. Few of us learn that rather than giving in to or avoiding how we feel, there’s a third option: you can calmly listen to them, consider what they’re “saying,” and then make an informed choice about how to proceed.

The best way to think about emotions is like lights on your car’s dashboard: Sometimes they’re a little uncomfortable (low fuel!), but often they’re trying to communicate something to us.

Learning to see the function of emotion—what they’re doing—is a key part of emotional intelligence generally. And it can be especially helpful when confronted with other people’s anger.

See, what most people don’t realize is that anger is actually a positive emotion. We think of it as bad or negative because people who are angry often end up doing negative things. But if you really think about it, the feeling of anger itself is actually pleasurable. It’s inflating and ego-boosting:

  • Behind every assessment of “you’re dumb” is an implication of “I’m smart.”
  • Behind every judgment of “that’s wrong” is an implication of “I know what’s right.”

Once you understand that anger actually feels good, you can start to see why people so easily get angry and stay angry… Because it feels good! At least in the moment.

A very common function of anger that most people don’t realize is that it alleviates and distracts from other difficult emotions like sadness, fear, or shame. It’s a defense mechanism.

Many people have learned that they can quickly alleviate their fear or sadness or any other painful emotion by framing the situation in terms of someone else doing something wrong. Consequently, they feel right and justified, which temporarily distracts from their more painful feelings. This is why people are so judgmental.

Suppose you ask your co-worker to fix something in a presentation you’re working on together and they snap back at you with: “Well, I’ve had to fix plenty of your mistakes!” There’s anger functioning to alleviate some feelings of embarrassment, for example, at their mistake.

Once you learn to look for the function of other people’s anger, it makes it easier to separate yourself from it and stay detached. When you can see that your husband getting angry and rude is a defense mechanism (however primitive!) for dealing with his own insecurity, it makes it easier to confidently stand your ground.

Furthermore, understanding the function of someone’s anger makes it easier to acknowledge and validate their anger like we discussed in number 1 above.

The next time you find yourself confronted with someone else anger, ask yourself: What function could their anger be serving? What does being angry (a pleasurable emotion) help them achieve or do or think?

3. Avoid speculative self-talk.

We humans are meaning-making machines. We’re also storytelling machines.

We crave the security and comfort that comes from believing things have an inherent purpose and order to them. And we often impose our own purpose and order on things by telling stories.

Think of a time when you performed poorly at something, maybe getting a C on a test in school or a poor performance review. Chances are, you almost immediately started telling yourself a story about why it had happened:

  • I knew I should have studied for those extra three hours instead of going out with friends.
  • My manager’s just overly critical. She’s always picking on me and singling me out.

In both cases, we tell a story as a way of making sense of what’s happening.

Now, sometimes this storytelling is pretty objective and aimed at truly understanding something better. But more often than not, the stories we tell are motivated not by the truth about things but by wanting to feel better:

  • Telling ourselves that if we had studied more we would have gotten a better grade makes us feel in control.
  • Blaming your manager makes you feel less guilty about the fact that you’ve been slacking off lately at work.

At time, we can harness our self-talk and storytelling powers for good, but often they simply happen out of instinct or the desire to feel good and bolster our egos. And if left unchecked, these habits of self-talk can wreak havoc on our emotional lives and our relationships.

When it comes to anger and dealing with other people’s anger, a lot of people make a bad situation worse because of their automatic habit of spinning stories about what the other person’s anger means.

Here’s an example:

Suppose your wife yells at you the minute you step through the door because you’re half an hour late and now she’s late for a meeting. Almost instantaneously, your thoughts and self-talk start spinning a tale about what her anger means:

God, why does she have to be so angry all the time. She should relax, it’s not the big a deal—certainly not worth getting all bent out of shape over. She really should go see a therapist and get these anger issues under control.

First of all, there’s a lot of potential assumptions and inaccuracies in this story:

  • Really, she’s angry ALL THE TIME?
  • It’s not a big deal to you, but have you really considered all the reasons why it might actually be a pretty big deal to her?
  • Because she yells at you that means she has anger issues? Do you even know what anger issues means other than that you feel like she gets angry too much?

Second, this storytelling is self-serving. The fact that these stories you’re telling make you look like the good guy and her look like the bad guy are going to make you feel better. And the fact that it makes you feel better is a major conflict of interest when it comes to being objective. Maybe all these stories about her anger are really just serving to deflect attention away from your own guilt over not paying attention to the time?

The point is, it’s very easy to start telling ourselves stories in our head about other people’s anger and what it means. And usually these stories aren’t super objective, in large part because they tend to be self-serving.

Once you’ve built up a story in your head about why their anger isn’t justified, you’re much more likely to act in a way that invalidates their anger, puts them on the defensive, and escalates the conflict.

Instead, one of the best things you can do when confronted with someone else’s anger is to avoid any speculation about their anger initially.

Rather than theorizing about their anger based on assumptions and self-serving instincts, try to be a bit more factual. One option is to try to understand the function of their anger as we discussed in number 2 above.

Another option is to simply catalogue the facts of the situation: What happened exactly? Does what they say match up with my experience? Am I feeling afraid, sad, guilty, or any other strong emotion? If so, what’s that about?

There’s power in stories. And when based on gut reactions and the desire to protect our own egos, these stories can end up doing more harm than good.

Try to be aware of your default self-talk scripts in the face of other people’s anger. And then ask yourself: How realistic is this? And even better, Is this line of thinking really helpful to the situation?

4. Create an anger plan.

If you’re anything like me or the dozens of clients I work with each week, anger tends to show up in patterns. That is, there are certain predictable situations, times, events, and triggers where anger arrives.

Here’s a quick example any couple can probably relate to: Have you ever tried to have a really important, serious, high-stakes conversation in bed at 11:30 pm after a long day? If so, you know the inevitable truth that they never go well. Often they lead to fights and arguments, hurt feelings, and poor sleep.

The point is, even though we occasionally get totally caught off guard by other people’s anger, it usually happens it pretty predictable circumstances. Which means, if you know what to look for, you can anticipate these high-risk anger situations and have a solid plan for how to handle it.

In hindsight, maybe 11:30 pm is not the best time to have an important conversation…

Creating an anger plan means having a prepared strategy for handling common anger situations, either for yourself or—ideally—one that’s agreed upon by the other person too.

For example, a client of mine was telling me about how he and his wife always tend to get into fights whenever the topic of his parents come up. He told me that his parents can be quite judgmental and even mean sometimes to his wife and that she’s understandably sensitive about any kind of interactions with them.

So when it comes to planning holiday get-togethers, for example, they often end up angry and fighting about how much time they should or shouldn’t spend with his parents.

As I asked more about the situation, I started to notice another pattern that my client hadn’t really been aware of: They almost always discussed plans for doing things with his parents spontaneously.

He’d get an email from his mom about Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, and then immediately ask his wife what she wanted to do for Thanksgiving. His wife would instinctively get a bit stressed and on edge at getting “ambushed” by the topic. My client would then interpret her stress as anger, and he would get defensive. And before they knew it, they were in a full-blown fight.

I suggested that maybe a big part of the problem was the spontaneous and reactive nature of their discussions about his parents.

We tried a little exercise: The next time something having to do with his parents came up, he was going to wait at least an hour before bringing it up with his wife. Then, when he did bring it up, it was simply to mention it and ask his wife if there was a good time they could talk about it in the next few days.

This had the benefit of giving his wife some time to mull things over on her own so she could approach the conversation a little bit more prepared.

Sure enough, my client reported back that this little “game plan” had worked surprisingly well. And over the course of the next year or so, the number of angry conflicts they had went down dramatically.

I like this story because it’s a good example of the benefits of having a plan for anger. Much of the time, anger-filled situations go from difficult but manageable to a disaster because we approach them reactively. Instead, if we can find ways to anticipate them and then have a ready-made plan for how to deal with them well, our odds of success go way up.

Of course, this isn’t always possible. Sometimes someone else’s anger really does just come out of the blue.

But much of the time, there are strong patterns to anger. If we can understand these patterns we can anticipate them. If we can anticipate them, we can make a plan for them. And if we have a plan, we’re much more likely to handle them well.

5. Master the art of differential reinforcement.

Differential Reinforcement sounds super technical and weird, but it’s actually a pretty straightforward concept and extremely useful tool when it comes to managing other people’s anger.

Here’s how it works:

Reinforcement is a basic psychological concept that says that our behaviors are influenced by what follows them. Specifically, if a behavior is followed by a pleasant experience, the chances of that behavior happening again are increased. But if that behavior is followed by an unpleasant experience, the chances of that behavior happening again are decreased.

For example, suppose your manager has a habit of sending a passive-aggressive email anytime you’re a few minutes late to clock in at work. This is annoying to you, understandably.

If you’d like his behavior to stop—or at least decrease in frequency—you should think about the reinforcers: What are the things that happen after the email gets sent that make it more or less likely that the behavior will happen in the future?

In this case, maybe you tend to reply to the email with an apology explaining why you were running late and assuring your manager that it won’t happen again. On the one hand, this seems like a smart move because you imagine your manager will be less angry if you give a reason for your tardiness. And many managers might appreciate this, take it as a sign that you do care about your work and aren’t just slacking off. And as a result, give you some leeway in the future —meaning their annoying emails would lessen.

However, people are different. You could also imagine a manager who’s  power hungry and really relishes in the fact that he is “in charge of” others at work. Which means your email back to him might be causing him to feel an even more inflated sense of power and superiority—which he likes feeling!

From a reinforcement perspective, your apologetic emails might actually be making future passive-aggressive emails more likely! And if that’s the case, it could be that simply not responding to the emails helps decrease their frequency in the future because he doesn’t get as much out of it.

The art of differential reinforcement is about learning to see what really motivates people and their behavior.

And once you understand how to be smart (and creative) about how you respond to their behavior—both the kind you want more of and the kind you want less of—good things happen.

Let’s apply this to another example:

I had a client who was having a lot of conflict with his wife over laundry. Specifically, my client’s wife had the habit of leaving dirty close on the floor of the closet for a day or two before putting them in the hamper.

This bothered my client. And even though he’d brought it up a few times with his wife, nothing had changed. As a result, they were constantly getting into small tiffs about the laundry, and it was actually taking a small but not insignificant toll on their relationship.

So I suggested that my client do a little differential reinforcement, which consisted of two parts:

  1. Positively reinforcing the behavior he wanted more of (her putting her clothes in the hamper).
  2. Abstaining from reinforcing the behavior he wanted less of (leaving clothes on the floor).

Here’s how it worked:

  • Occasionally, my client’s wife would eventually put her laundry in the hamper. Instead of criticizing her for taking forever to do it, he went out of his way to tell her in a genuine way that he really appreciated it, gave her a big hug, and left it at that.
  • Whenever my client’s wife did leave clothes on the floor, he said nothing and tried his best to not even express non-verbally that he was upset about it. Furthermore, he didn’t put them away for her—something he had been in the habit of doing (because he hated having clothes on the closet floor), but which had actually been reinforcing the very habit he disliked.
  • Over the course of a few weeks (which, admittedly, were tough for my client) things started shifting. The frequency with which his wife put her clothes away immediately increased. My client’s tolerance for clothes on the floor increased and didn’t bother him quite so much. And most importantly, they had fewer tiffs and fights, which meant the quality of their relationship improved visibly.

If you’re struggling with someone else’s anger, you can often use differential reinforcement to your advantage:

  1. Identify the behavior you’d like to change—usually some form of aggression.
  2. Look carefully at what happens immediately after that behavior and then ask yourself: Is this making it more or less likely that the behavior will happen again in the future? Is this a positive or negative thing for the other person?
  3. Almost always, aggressive or frustrating behavior is followed by something that reinforces it and makes it more likely to happen again. Often it’s counterintuitive, and often it’s something you—the recipient—is doing unintentionally. Giving the angry person attention (reinfocring) by trying to show them the truth about the situation, for example.
  4. If you are doing something that may be reinforcing the behavior, stop. Try an experiment where you simply do nothing in the face of the problem behavior for a week or month and see what happens.
  5. If there are occasional examples of the other person responding well to conflict or anger instead of with aggression, go out of your way to reinforce that alternative behavior positively.

Differential reinforcement isn’t a cure-all. But in certain situations it can be a game-changer. In any case, it’s a helpful way to think more carefully about the patterns of anger and aggression in your life.


All Your Need to Know

Dealing with other people’s anger can be a challenging and sometimes frightening prospect. And while we ultimately don’t have a whole lot of control over other people—including their emotions or behavior—there are a few constructive things we can all learn to do better in the face of other people’s anger:

Validate the anger, put boundaries on the aggression.

Look for the function of their anger.

Avoid speculative self-talk.

Create an anger plan.

Master the art of differential reinforcement.

6 Comments

Ivy Anna Rizzo LPCC January 27, 2020 Reply

This could not have come at a more opportune time. I’m so glad I began following your newsletter. It does often feel like when we are facing someone’s anger we only have the option of responding back in turn or running away. I really love how fully you went into this. I will be sharing as we all face this from time to time.

Nick Wignall January 28, 2020 Reply

Thank you, Ivy!

Trish Mullahey January 28, 2020 Reply

Indeed, anger is addictive because of the adrenaline it generates. The other part is that if one is mired in despair , anger can empower the self to engage in life saving measures .

Nick Wignall January 28, 2020 Reply

True!

Ann January 28, 2020 Reply

Fabulous practical strategies. Concrete examples. Finished the series nicely!

Nick Wignall January 28, 2020 Reply

Thanks Ann 🙂

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