Everyone gets angry, so knowing how to defuse hostility can come in handy with pretty much anybody who is upset – coworkers, family members, children, and strangers on the street.
The first step to defusing hostility is to understand that anger is essentially a way that people behave when they feel threatened. The source of their anxiety may include things like the fear of losing control, the fear of being wrong, or the fear of looking like an idiot in front of others. Making an angry person feel less anxious will calm them down.
Our own reaction to the hostility is probably the most important element to defusing hostility. We must remain calm in the face of someone else’s anger. Calmness serves two purposes – one is so the aggressor is not provoked into having to defend themselves with more intense aggression. The second is to make the situation feel safe and in control.
Breathe. Relax your muscles. Nod slowly as you listen. Ask the aggressor to sit, or if they won’t sit then stand sideways at an angle instead of face-to-face. If the aggressor is a child, crouch so that you are not towering over them, and use a gentle voice when you speak to them.
Now that you are remaining calm, you might wonder what to say in order to defuse hostility. The answer is to say next to nothing. Listen. Listen. Listen some more. Many times the aggressor just needs to vent. If they are acting inappropriately, you can always wait until the rant is over to ask them to, for example, not use profanity next time. Resist the temptation to interrupt, correct, and provoke the person while they are angry. Your rational argument as to why they are being unreasonable and inappropriate will only serve to aggravate them more.
When we eventually do speak, it should be to ask open ended questions that will help us find out more about what the real problem is. The thing that a person is ranting about is very rarely the real problem, so it is important to listen to the messages behind the words. Remember to ask yourself why the person is feeling threatened or anxious.
I find that saying things like, “You make a really good point,” and “I think what you’re saying is fair,” work well for letting a person know that I’m at least trying to hear what they are saying. People only yell when they don’t feel that their real message has been heard. They will continue to yell until they feel that the other person has either got it, or given up trying to oppose it. They will likely say offensive, unfair, unfounded things. Try not to lose control of your emotions and start arguing back.
Listening to the message behind the words, specially if they are angry and hostile words, is tough. We have to pay attention to not only the person’s body language, but also our own. Ask yourself what was being said when the person frowned or clenched his jaw. Ask yourself why were you crossing your arms or shaking your head from side to side as she tried to explain why she was upset? If his face softens and his shoulders relax, keep going on that train of thought. If she rolls her eyes or sighs, ask her what she was thinking in that exact moment. If your tone of voice is getting louder or harsher, ask yourself what you are feeling threatened by.
Most people don’t like conflict and since the world is currently full of conflict, I recommend practicing defusing hostility rather than trying to always avoid conflicts. Ultimately, when the anger and hostility are peeled away, there is a need to be safe and understood underneath. If we can provide that feeling for everyone, there would be no need to become hostile.