Won Any Arguments with a Three-Year-Old Lately?
With stress levels of customers, coworkers and colleagues constantly on the rise during these challenging times audience members often ask me, “How do I handle the angry people in my life?” As grown-ups we know how to use calm words and controlled behavior to express anger, seek satisfaction and get results in a professional, assertive and adult manner. But angry people don’t always act exactly like grown-ups, do they?
Think back to the last time you had an argument with an angry three-year-old … and won. It probably wasn’t easy, even though you’re older, wiser, and certainly bigger than your young opponent. When angry people behave like little kids, it’s impossible to communicate as adults because of their childish – and often irrational – behavior. These strategies can help bring “the little kid” up to your adult level so you can talk calmly and resolve the issue at hand.
Assess. Allow time for the person to “have her say” or “get it off his chest.” After a few moments of listening, you may be ready to jump in with a logical solution and solve the problem. But “the little kid” doesn’t want to hear from you yet. Don’t interrupt. Let him or her talk – within reason. Sometimes, as we all know, people just want to be heard.
Acknowledge the problem. Listen actively and give them your undivided attention. Even if you think they’re exaggerating or over-reacting, it’s important to validate their perception of the situation at that moment.
Agree to the extent you can. You don’t have to agree on who’s right and who’s wrong, but you can agree that there’s a problem or that the person is upset. Use appropriate phrases that demonstrate your empathy and concern.
Apologize to the extent you can. Sometimes it’s appropriate to apologize, even if you’re not at fault because it’s the professional thing to do. Any time you ARE at fault, you should apologize because it’s the right thing to do. Know the difference between accepting personal responsibility and offering a sincere but blameless apology if that’s part of your job.
Act within your authority. If you can’t solve the problem or offer some help, find someone who can. In certain situations no one – including you – can fix what’s wrong. But you can choose to offer your understanding, empathy and support as needed and appropriate.
Reassess. Take time later to reflect on the outcome of your conversation. Was the person in a better frame of mind or more upset? What did you say or do that helped the situation? What did you say or do that made matters worse? Reflecting on your words, actions, and outcomes will help you be more effective next time.
Remember, your “three-year-old in adult disguise” may simply be annoyed, irritated, frustrated or scared. Most angry people are not dysfunctional beings out of touch with reality. But some are. It’s not your job to accept verbal abuse of any kind – at work or at home. If that’s your issue, talk with someone in HR at work, or with a trusted friend or family member in your personal life to help you decide how to handle the situation. And take heart! The more you practice these techniques, the easier it will be to deal with the angry people in your life – at work and at home.