How to Handle Angry People at Work

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Dealing with angry or upset people isn’t easy in any language. Trying to calm a tense situation in another language is an extra challenge. In this post, we’ll look at some techniques and language that can help if English is the first, second, or third language you speak. 

What Not to Do

Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to tell people to “calm down”. This usually makes them even angrier. 

X Calm down. 
X Stop getting angry. 
X What’s wrong with you? 
X Try to relax, will you? 

1. Stay Calm

What’s worse than one upset person? Two upset people! We can’t control how other people think, feel, or act, but we can control our thoughts, feelings and reactions. So take a breath, and stay calm. As before, don’t tell the other person to stay calm; show that everyone should relax.

• This has been a tough situation. Let’s take a five-minute break. 
• I understand tensions are running high. Let’s step back for a moment. 
• We all want a good solution. Let’s break for lunch and come back fresh. 

2. Listen and Show Empathy

Many times, when someone is upset, they don’t feel heard or understood. You don’t have to agree with them, but show you recognize their feelings. 

• I understand you’re frustration. 
• I can see this is important to you. 
• Tell me more about your concerns. 
• I hear what you’re saying. 
• We all appreciate your position. 

3. Don't say "you".

Use “you” a lot when giving positive feedback, but avoid it for negative feedback. This is extra true in tense situations. Also, try using softeners to make your statements less confrontational. Compare the following. 

X You made a lot of mistakes in the product listing. Now, you need to fix them!
O There are a few mistakes in the product listing. Now, we just need to fix them.

X You didn’t send us the correct information. 
O We didn’t receive all of the relevant information. 

4. Focus On Common Ground

It’s rare that people completely disagree about every detail. Try focussing on what you agree on or something positive, then edge the other person to feeling better. 

A: This is ridiculous! I hate this new schedule! 
B: Sounds like there’s a problem. 
A: Yeah, there’s a problem. Look at this. I have five meetings back to back. 
B: That is really tough. I can see why that’s annoying. 
A: Yeah! 
B: It looks like two other people are off that day. Where are they? 
A: Steve’s on paternity leave and Susan is away at a conference. 
B: That’s good for them. It looks like you’re the one in charge then. 
A: I guess so. I didn’t look at it like that. 
B: That would be a tough day for anyone, but I’m pretty sure you can handle. 
A: Thanks. I’ll do what I can.


5. Offer Alternatives

If one plan of action isn’t working, look for alternative solutions. 

• What if we try a different approach to address your concerns? 
• What other possibilities can we consider? 
• What is the alternative? 

6. Focus on the problem, not the person

It’s easy to focus on what, or who, is right in front of us. In English we say, “Don’t kill the messenger because you don’t like the message.” Even better, focus on the solution instead of the problem!

• Let’s focus on the problem, not each other. 
• We all want what’s best here. Let’s focus on that.
• You are not the problem here. This situation is. Let’s find a solution. 

Let's Practice

Every situation is a little different, just like every conversation. The language on this page is a good start, but there’s lots more to learn. 

Want to practice with an instructor? Book a lesson today and let’s talk about your unique situation! 

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