Cool Solutions for Hot Tempers

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Angry, difficult people challenge us in many ways. They scare us with reactions out of proportion to the event that fueled their anger.  When we feel fear or threat we typically feel an automatic anger response.  Our anger then feeds the other persons anger. We can diffuse an angry person by responding appropriately and calmly. Here are a few tips for dealing with difficult people.

1. Empathy: even the most disturbed people seem to respond to feeling understood. It is calming to know someone understands how we feel. Ask open ended questions to get the person to describe how they feel. “You seem very upset with me. What can I do to help you in this situation?” Then listen without reacting. People who are allowed to vent their anger verbally eventually calm down.
2. Distraction: Asking the person a question which requires him to think about something else in order to answer can often diffuse anger. “I notice an east coast accent, are you from New York?  Are you hungry?”
3. Humor: Sometimes cracking a funny joke, or saying something silly and off the wall, can promote laughter and lightness in a stressful situation. “Isn’t this the most fun you’ve ever had in your whole life”?
4. Breathing deeply and slowly: Breath in slowly, to the count of six, hold your breath for six counts then slowly release for six counts. This oxygenates the blood, keeps you from the shallow breathing that comes with anger and fear, and helps to stimulate the cerebral cortex to do some thinking. Your heart rate slows down, and a feeling of calmness emerges, improving your ability to manage stress.
5. Speak quietly and slowly: Have you noticed when you talk to someone with laryngitis you start talking quietly, even whispering? If we control our reactions, and don’t yell back, often the other person will begin to quiet down. Unfortunately if the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol they may not respond to this technique, however it can keep the situation from getting worse.

There are perhaps hundreds of ways of dealing with angry people depending on the situation. Perhaps the most important thing to do is to contain your own fear and anger. We can’t put out fire with a blow torch. Empathize, breathe, stay quiet, distract yourself or the other person, or use humor to keep cool in hot tempered situations.