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Coping with Angry People


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I often work as a professional coach to executives, physicians, lawyers and others. One of the issues that frequently comes up in coaching is how best to cope with angry bosses, coworkers,or clients who suddenly or repeatedly appear. Skill in dealing with such people is no small matter – depending on our skillfulness,encountering and angry person can be a minor bump in the road or can upset us for the rest of the day. If we lose our balance, not only is it much less pleasant to be inside our own skins, but our effectiveness at completing tasks and communicating with others can be substantially diminished. The good news is that there are a few easily remembered steps that anyone can make use of with a little practice and powerful results.

When beginning to deal with an angry person,the first step is always to listen. This is done with eye contact, but very few words, until the initial wave of angry energy pauses for the first time. During that interval, listen for the factual content of what that person thinks is their concern, while letting the emotional content wash by without “hooking” you. Don’t put much effort into sharing information at this point. The person who is very angry is not in a state where they can absorb much of anything you have to say, even if they would benefit from hearing it. They may often misinterpret your quick verbal response or problem-solving as a way of getting rid of them and their needs.

A great metaphor to hold in mind as you listen during this first
step is that of a great ocean wave crashing over you as you stand in the surf, or perhaps a volcano erupting with hot rock and ash. There is no point in trying to shout over the noise until the initial outburst is complete, or become upset that this event is
all about you, even if the angry person would have you believe that at the time.

When the pause in their verbal torrent finally comes, briefly mirror the factual content with the goal of letting the other person know that you’ve heard the core of their complaint accurately. This can sound something like: “So if I heard you correctly, you’re saying …”or “What I hear you saying is this …”, but you should always use your own judgment in choosing language that sounds natural to each situation. Even better, the mirroring statement can be preceded by first asking permission to confirm
you heard, and/or a finishing question asking if your understanding is accurate. This might sound something like: “Can I make sure I heard you correctly?” Rest assured
that the answer to this question will always be “yes”. This person wants to be heard! Understand that you are teaching two concepts to the angry person at this point: that you have heard the essence of their statement, and that you have not moved into anger yourself. You have remained sane in the presence of their unbalanced state, and are not becoming their enemy.

There is magic built into what you have just accomplished in justa minute or so of time and a few simple words. You have managed to share with someone who is feeling attacked and vulnerable (and who is barely able to listen to anyone) that not
only are you not angry in response to their anger, but that you have actually understood what they are upset about accurately.

Furthermore, if you asked and were given permission to make a mirroring statement to prove you heard them correctly,
you have already made and kept a successful contract with them, giving you credibility in their mind. You now established a relationship that has value to the person that is angry. Very likely they have aired their grievances with individuals
before you who did not listen well or became angry in return, and who did their best to pass the buck of dealing with the angry person. With just this first step, you are shifting the mental image the angry person holds of you from being the enemy like all
the rest to a becoming an ally in getting their needs met. There is still work to do, but in one move you have done the biggest part of defusing the interaction.

Timothy Dey, M.D. is a speaker and educator who makes a unique combination of educational assets and life experiences available to people through his coaching, consulting, teaching, writing, and workshops. He is a graduate of the Wayne State University School of Medicine, a certified comprehensive coach, and adjunct professor in multiple fields. He creates courses and teaches for online colleges in the areas of leadership, communication, corporate culture, and stress-management skills, as well as pharmacology and other health-related topics.

Dr. Dey works extensively with hospital systems, residency programs, attending physicians, and executives seeking expert guidance in interpersonal communication skills, physician-patient relationships, and executive goal-oriented coaching. As co-founder of The Dey Group, Inc., he is available through his website http://www.deygroup.com, e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 313-383-0582, and welcomes all contacts.

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  • Posted On October 22, 2006
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