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How to Deal With an Aggressive Person

by Beverly Smallwood, Ph.D

Each of us has had the experience of being on the receiving end of another person’s anger or aggressiveness. Maybe it was an interaction with a customer who felt that service was below par. Maybe the interaction occurred when a co-worker felt that you had mistreated him in some way. Maybe it was with a relative you didn’t please.

The natural tendency when someone begins to attack is to strike back. However, this is often not wise.

People who are in the heat of an aggressive attack are rarely successfully dealt with by counterattack. Counterattack only adds fuel to the fire and rarely accomplishes anything with an angry person.

A wiser approach is to help the person to feel understood and encourage him or her to calm down and discuss the situation reasonably.

A caution, however, is that is would be most unwise to admonish the person in the middle of an attack to “calm down and discuss the situation reasonably!” Instead, use the following steps.

1. Hear the person out

Don’t interrupt or try to make your point. Instead, listen attentively, using head nods or short verbal statements like “Uh-huh” or “I see” to encourage the person to continue to talk.

2. Keep asking for elaboration and clarification

Yes, I realize that this about the last thing that you want to do when someone is aggressively attacking. You don’t want to ask them to give you more details than they are already giving you!

However, keep a cool head. Realize that when you show that you are open to hearing and understanding what the person is saying, this will eventually encourage the individual to calm down. You may ask questions like, “Then what happened?” or “Tell me more about what you meant when you said I was insensitive.”

3. Consider taking notes

In some cases this can be helpful, if you say something like, “I want to be sure that I’m understanding your main points, so would you mind if I take a few notes while you tell me about it?” This sometimes has a way of slowing what the person is saying, and it may tend to cause him or her to be less raging.

However, the note-taking strategy must be used with caution, because at times it could make the person even angrier, especially if they’re tending toward suspiciousness and paranoia about your motives.

4. Show concern on your face

Your facial expressions should be attentive and concerned. Indicate your interest in what the person is saying by maintaining a pleasant, relaxed facial expression and a steady (not staring) gaze.

5. Keep your voice tone soft

Never raise your voice volume so that you can be heard over a person who is yelling. This will only make the other person yell more loudly! Instead, lower your voice tone even below your normal range. The natural effect of this is that the other person will also speak more softly.

6. Paraphrase and summarize what the person has said

In an attempt to show to the person that you are listening and trying to understand, you might say something like, “Let me see if I have the main points that are important to you”…(then proceed to summarize those in your own words)

7. Do not argue

An argument occurs when you listen to what the person is saying with the intent of finding the weakness in it. You then begin to rebut their statements, often interrupting to do so.

8. Find as much as possible to agree with

If you look closely enough, you can usually find something to agree with in what the person is saying. There is usually some grain of truth to their observations, even if they have misinterpreted some part of the situation. Mention some area of the person’s point of view in which you find validity, acknowledging your ability to see how it could have been interpreted as they are seeing it.

9. Empathize with the person’s feelings

You might say something like, “I can see how you would be really frustrated. In situations before where I felt that I was cut off and my opinions didn’t matter, I felt frustrated, too.”

10. Ask if the person would be willing to hear some additional information

This is where you begin to share your side of the story. You’re not saying that yours is the right information and theirs is wrong. You are saying something like, “Would be it all right if I shared with you some other facts that may give us a part of the total picture?”

11. Ask what he or she thinks would make the situation better

Very often the person is so consumed with the expression of anger, he or she has not really paused to think about what can be done now to improve the situation. Openly asking the individual for suggestions for improvement can begin to move the situation toward a problem-solving mode.

12. Add your suggestions

If the person has not offered constructive suggestions, but insists on continuing the attack, you may want to suggest something that could make the situation better. Apologize and make an offer for resolution.

13. Suggest a “thinking break”

There may be times when you’ll need to schedule another time to talk. If it is apparent that continuing the discussion at this time is leading nowhere fast, a cool-off, thinking break can be helpful. You might suggest, “Why don’t we both give this some thought and get back together tomorrow…maybe around 2:00…and see if we can work this out. Does that time work for you?”

14. Make an action plan; restate it for clarity

If you have been able to agree on some action steps, be sure that you both restate those steps to ensure that you understand your agreement the same way.

Psychologist Dr. Bev Smallwood is head of Magnetic WorkplacesTM, providing creative ideas and practical strategies for stressed-out, stretched-out workplace leaders and team members. Review a complete list of her seminars, workshops, and programs available for your convention or corporate meeting at the website: http://www.MagneticWorkplaces.com. Sign up at the site for free bi-weekly articles on success in life and work in Dr. Bev's e-newsletter.




Some Related Articles:

How to Deal With Workplace Bullies
'How Can You Be That Miserable So Early in the Morning?'
Are You Using These Three Ways to Mismanage Conflict?
Are You Assertive - or Aggressive?
How to Handle People Who Are Always Arguing
Sometimes You've Just Got to Let It Go!
Listening When You Don't Want To
The Feared and Dreaded Teachers' Conferencea
Purposeful Inquiry: Using Inquiry in Tense Conversations
Once Upon a Conflict: From Confrontation to Collaboration




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