How to Defuse Other People’s Anger

By Linda Larsen
Copyright 2000

All of us have been on the receiving end of someone else’s anger, whether it was with our bosses, employees, coworkers, clients, or customers. Through those miserable experiences, we have all learned one important thing – joining them in their anger and firing back verbal assaults – didn’t solve the problem. In fact, it might have actually made it worse.

If we want to effectively deal with the problem in such a way that resolves the issue and maintains the relationship, there are certain key strategies and behaviors, which can employ.

  1. Listen first. This strategy is particularly challenging when we feel that we are right and they are wrong. And even though we may not be speaking while they are stating their case, our nonverbal body language is usually screaming, "OK, you idiot. But I know I’m right and you know I’m right. So, I’ll listen – but only for you to shut up so that I can start talking." Instead, we have to listen to understand. Listen for information you don’t have. Assume that they have (in their minds) a legitimate reason for their upset and listen for what it is. Nod, occasionally, to indicate that you are listening. And, while you are listening, remember to…
  2. Maintain a neutral face. Experts tell us that as much as 55% of the meaning of any message comes from visual indicators – posture, gestures, body positioning, etc. We also know that as much as 75% of that 55% comes from our face. Make a conscious effort to relax your face, unclench your jaw and lift your eyebrows. Think, "open, pleasant, neutral, relaxed."
  3. Maintain a level voice. Most of us get extremely reactive (either defensive or offensive) when we hear that tone of voice in the other person. Again, as much as 38% of the meaning of our message can be found in our vocal qualities. So if my thoughts (and subsequent feelings) are, "OK, I’ll humor you, but everything you are saying is total garbage," then that message will be communicated loudly in my vocal tone. Instead, use the same tone of voice you would use if you were calm and relaxed.
  4. Feed back what you hear. While you are listening, the opportunity will present itself for you restate and paraphrase both their content and their feelings. You might find yourself saying things like, "so, no one called you back that day, is that right?" Or, "sounds like this entire experience was extremely frustrating for you."
  5. Change what the person is focused on. When people are angry and upset, one of the first things we want to do is change their emotional state. We can do this by interrupting their pattern and refocusing their attention. Ways to do this:
    a. Say their name. When you do need to speak, start by saying the person’s name. When a person hears their name they will stop and change what they are focused on, if only for a moment. Next…

    b. Say, "hold on a second". These words, said with extreme calm and relaxation, again stop the person for a moment and change what they have their attention fixed on.
  6. Make empathetic statements. The best statement you can make at this point is, "Let me make sure I understand you. You’re saying…" and then repeat what you heard them say. A person will stop to listen to you if they know that what you are going to say is what they just said. And when you repeat what you heard them say, make certain that you…
  7. Number items. When people are angry and upset, they are operating predominantly out of the right, emotional side of their brain. In order to get them over to the logical, rational left side of their brain, if at all possible, give them a left brain function. Example: "You’re saying; one, you didn’t get the report in time; two, it didn’t have all the information you needed; and three, it was not in the correct format, is that correct?" In order to comprehend what you are saying, the person has to flip over to their left brain in order to follow the sequence.
  8. You don’t need to make them right – but don’t make them wrong. At the height of their anger, there is absolutely no way that we can talk them out of their feelings. Instead say things like, "I understand your feelings," or "I’m sure if I was in your place I would feel the same way." Get solution oriented. If you are not sure how you can help, ask. If you are in a position to provide help, again list the steps you will take in a numerical fashion. Either way, use the words, "I want to help." Let the other person know, in no uncertain terms, that you care about what they are going through and are willing to assist in correcting the problem.
  9. Eliminate the following statements:

    "If you will just calm down"
    "If you will just let me talk"
    "You’re being unreasonable"
    "Exactly what’s your problem?"

The above statements, and others similar in nature, serve to exacerbate the problem and intensify feelings of anger. It’s also important to remember that if someone’s anger seems to be threatening or getting out of control, the most prudent decision we can make may be to leave. Appropriate comments would include things like, "I can see that you are extremely upset. I do want to help, but not in this way," or, "I am unable to help you when you yell at me. I appreciate how strongly you feel about this – and I will try to find someone else to help you."

In life, the reality is that anger is a normal healthy emotion. Sometimes, however, people can allow their anger to cloud their judgment and negatively impact their behaviors. When the other person is angry and upset and we are calm – then we are in control of the situation. And when we have the ability to defuse their anger and solve the problem, we emerge as the hero, and our relationships become stronger and healthier. Using sound reasoning and practical strategies enables us to just that.

Linda Larsen, professional speaker and keynote presenter, is the author of the critically acclaimed audio program, 12 Secrets to High Self Esteem and of the newly released book, True Power – Get it, Use it, Share it. She can be reached at 1-800-355-4420 or


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