As today’s workplace continues to serve as a veritable Petri dish for growing a culture of stress and frustration, the likelihood that one or more of your employees will become angry is on the rise. Of course, in today’s “enlightened” organizations it’s generally considered uncouth to blow a gasket at work, so today’s version of work-place anger often comes in the form of repressed rage masked as raging sarcasm, or possibly a hostile glance, or maybe the ever-favorite thinly veiled threat.

For example, an employee hustles into your office. He’s trying to act calm, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that you’re staring into the face of strong emotions. The pulsating vein in the angry fellow’s forehead is a dead giveaway. It turns out he’s upset at a coworker, but he’s directing his hostility toward you. As a response to the impending threat, you madly search for an appropriate response. Unfortunately, as you stammer out a response, the guy is only becoming more openly hostile and the conversation is headed for the dumper. So what’s an HR professional to do?

To answer this question we set out to identify real-life “best practices” for dealing with strong emotions. How do people who are interpersonally gifted deal with another person who has fallen under the influence of adrenaline? We started by going to a location that was guaranteed to serve up angry people by the dozens—the airport. There we studied passengers who had been bumped from flights or missed connections. Actually, we watched the gate attendants to learn how they responded to people who were about to have an embolism. Later we watched front-line supervisors in order to discover how they dealt with angry employees. The following is what we learned.

Upset businesswoman checking in at airport ticket counter
Upset businesswoman checking in at airport ticket counter

Don’t Do This. Despite the fact that many of the people we studied had been instructed how to deal with anger, rarely did they do anything that actually made matters better. The good news was that the trained professionals knew not to get angry in return (the natural response to an attack). The bad news is that the response they came up with was often just as problematic. They would put on a cloying smile, muster up a schoolmarm’s sense of moral superiority, and then patronize the heck out of the other person.

Don’t correct minor details. The most common error was to correct the other person right out of the chute. “Actually, you’re wrong. It happened Thursday, not Tuesday.” The other person is ticked, and now she’s being corrected! The trivial correction was often made with a sing-song voice that came off as cloying and manipulative. This, quite naturally, only escalated the problem.

Don’t quote policy. Telling others that they won’t be getting what they want because “it’s against policy” is another bad opening line. People don’t care about policies. They want what they want despite stupid policies. If necessary, they want you to change policies.

Don’t demand calm. If the other person was particularly hostile, the most common reaction was to tell him or her to calm down. For example, a group of leaders we studied almost always gave the angry person a dollar and asked him or her to go get a cup of coffee and calm down. This, as you might imagine, only poured fuel on the flames. It’s akin to saying: “You’re acting immature and need to grow up, so go away and don’t return until you can act like an adult.”

Don’t one-up. This technique came as a surprise. An individual would complain about something and the other person would share an even worse example—one-upping the angry individual. A person is upset and now they’re being told that their problems are rather trivial compared to yours. This too only made matters worse.

Do This. Tend first to your personal safety. Let’s be clear, if the other person is about to harm you—exit. Don’t hem and haw. Don’t try to active-listen your way to freedom. Stand up and walk to a safer public setting and then find your way to either security or legal. First and foremost, protect your safety.

Show your concern. If you’re not at risk—other than a verbal onslaught—quickly demonstrate your concern. The person wants you to be concerned, that’s why he or she is currently ragging on you. Don’t maintain a clinical stance in an effort to control your emotions. Acting calm and collected suggests that you don’t care. Show that you care.

Share mutual purpose. Quickly let the other person know that you want to help him or her resolve the problem. Show your concern, share your mutual purpose, and then listen.Resist your temptation to talk too early. Before you profess, correct, or clarify anything, let the other person explain the source of his or her frustration. Paraphrase to see if you’ve understood the point. Force yourself to listen and then listen again. Allowing the other person to talk helps buy time for them to calm down.

Get to the facts. As you’re listening, find your way to the facts. The other person has become angry by telling him or herself a story about a bad or selfish motive of another. Someone did something (the facts), he saw it, concluded that you or someone else was purposefully making his life miserable (not the facts), and as a result of this conclusion, became upset. Now he’s in your face and acting as if his story is true. It probably isn’t.

You enter this mini-play somewhere toward the end. The fellow is sharing his conclusions: “They are irresponsible and lazy” and your natural tendency will be to disagree. Instead, ask: “Exactly what did I (or someone else or the company) do that led you to conclude that I’m irresponsible?” Help the other person walk back his path to anger and arrive at the original behavior—what you or someone else did, not what the angry person concluded or how he feels. Getting back to the facts helps others step away from their conclusion and provides you the details you need to eventually resolve the problem.

Resolve the problem. Finally, once you get to the facts, clarify any misunderstandings and jointly resolve the problem. If you’ve avoided becoming angry or taking on a patronizing stance, and if you first listened with concern, you’ll now be problem-solving with a person who isn’t particularly emotional.

So there you have it. Don’t become angry or patronize. Instead, show your concern, find your mutual purpose, actively listen, get to the facts, and solve the problem together. These are truly best practices to help others dissipate their emotions so you can resolve issues effectively.

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