By Mike Cieri, MSIR, Vice President of Mardac Consultants
Communicating with an angry person is one of the most difficult business challenges a manager can face. Whether the angry person is a fellow employee, a client, or an outside third party, being on the receiving end of heightened emotions is stressful.
When face-to-face with a hostile person, the natural human response is to respond in kind—to match the level of agitation. In most professional situations, however, this is not an effective strategy. If you match hostility with hostility, the cycle will only perpetuate itself. The key to breaking this cycle is to establish mutual understanding. By finding a common understanding, you can unlock the conflict and begin to build communication step by step.
The most extreme and challenging situation is when individuals or groups are not only needy, but also highly emotional. You must be willing to hear the other person’s concerns. Once an emotionally charged person sees that you are listening and concerned, the anger will likely begin to dissipate. With the anger out of the way, you can shift the discussion to a resolution of the issues.
To calm a hostile person and create understanding, use the four step process:
• Use active listening skills.
1. The first step, “I” relate to how “you” feel. To do this effectively, name the emotion the person is feeling. For example:
• Relate to the Person: “I appreciate…”
• Name of the Emotion: “…your frustration.”
• Relate to the Person: “I share…”
• Name of the Emotion: “…your concern.”
2. The second step is to let him/her know that you, too, feel or have in the past felt the same way. Key phrases that accomplish this are:
• “I also felt the way you do.”
• “I, too, would want to know the same thing if I were in your position.”
Only when you’ve sincerely communicated that you really see how he/she feels can you move to the next step.
3. Ask permission
The natural inclination when someone has verbally attacked you is to retaliate with a quick and self-protective response.
• Resist this “knee jerk” reaction; instead, ask whether or not the other person would like to hear some information.
Below are some examples of appropriate language to use:
• “Would it be helpful for you to know what we have done in this area thus far?”
• “What information can I provide you?”
If your listener says “no” to all of these questions, you can then ask:
• “What, then, would be helpful?”
• Permission questions communicate that you are a reasonable person doing your best to reach a common understanding.
Once your listener says “yes,” you can proceed to the final step.
4. Explain or offer choices
When you have permission to explain something, keep the explanation short and simple. You may also ask other questions to confirm your understanding. If an explanation of some sort is not appropriate, you may want to offer the angry person choices.
“Would seeing the plans or the actual figures help you?”
• The more choices you give the other person, the greater his or her sense of control will be. Knowing that there really are ways to resolve the issue will lessen the angry person’s hostility.
Note that this model does not always move in a simple and linear fashion. You may find yourself in a situation in which some anger surfaces just when you thought the problem had been solved. You may have to cycle through the model again or spend a longer time on an individual step.
• Your success in dealing with an angry person lies in your ability to communicate with sincerity, consistency, and flexibility.
• Being flexible means not being so structured that you are not prepared to address new issues that come up.
About the author:
Mike Cieri, MSIR, is Vice President of Mardac Consultants and been in the Human Resource Management field for over 20 years. During this time he has held a variety of management positions, including several years on the executive management team of a large corporation as Vice President of Human Resources and Safety, as well as Vice President of Operations.