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By learning to stay calm in an exchange with someone who’s angry, you’re more apt to keep the situation from escalating. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

There’s been no shortage of stressors in 2020.

“We’ve been socially isolated, disconnected for months at this point, as well as felt a loss of control in many areas of our lives,” said Allyn Richards, PhD, a psychologist with Spectrum Health. “When you pair this with rising tensions, it’s a recipe ripe for stress.”

Hopefully, you’re finding some ways to wrangle your worries and keep your own emotions in check.

But what about those around you? What’s the best way to handle an agitated co-worker, a curmudgeonly neighbor or a grumpy shopper?

“We’re encountering an increasing number of hostile and angry interactions in situations we cannot avoid, including in both our professional and personal lives,” Dr. Richards said.

When ire comes to your cubicle or your corner of the supermarket, the best thing you can do is try to de-escalate the situation.

But first things first.

Know when to walk away

No one should be subject to threats, intimidation, bullying or other forms of threatening harassment.

If someone is being verbally abusive and threatening and you simply can’t have an effective exchange with them, you must recognize the point at which it doesn’t make sense to engage, Dr. Richards said.

Know when to take a break and come back later—or simply exit the situation altogether.

Beyond that, there are some ways to encourage constructive dialogue.


It’s difficult to engage in a rational exchange with someone if they’re angry, Dr. Richards said.

In those first moments of a tense exchange, aim to de-escalate the situation by responding calmly.

Don’t unleash a salvo of rebuttals. Don’t fight fire with fire.

“It’s hard when you’re on the receiving end,” Dr. Richards said. “It feels like a personal attack in that moment, so it’s a natural response to want to get defensive and lash back out.

“But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s someone else’s anger,” she said. “It’s not about you. It’s about their own emotional response and their perspective in that situation.”

Be aware of your voice and presence.

“Keep a calm, slow tone and be mindful of your body language,” Dr. Richards said. “Be open, not threatening, in terms of how you approach someone physically.”

If you’re leaning in close with arms crossed defiantly, that could instigate a harsher response. Don’t point fingers. Aim for an open-body posture. Keep your hands unclenched and open.

“We pick up on those nonverbal cues whether we’re aware of it or not,” Dr. Richards said.


Anger is often a representation of someone experiencing emotional pain—feeling threatened, fearful, hurt.

Strive to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, Dr. Richards said.

“By acknowledging that someone (is) hurting right now, that can help you approach it from a calm and reasonable place,” she said.

Telling the other person to calm down is not an acknowledgement of their feelings.

“That tends to have the opposite effect,” she said. “It just ramps it up.”

Identify the emotion you’re seeing them experience, as specifically as possible.

Tell them, for example: “I understand you’re upset about having to wear a mask and it’s uncomfortable.”

Foster understanding

You’ll need to ask questions to find out what’s driving the other person’s anger, Dr. Richards said.

People will sometimes calm down when they’re heard, or when given the opportunity to explain their perspective.

At the end of the day, most of us need the same things, Dr. Richards said.

We want to be happy. Healthy. Safe. More certain of the world in which we live.

When life becomes wildly uncertain, it can stir up severe emotions. You should aim to figure out what it is the other person needs in those moments. Don’t discount or trivialize it.

“Ultimately, (a person’s) behavior is trying to tell you something,” Dr. Richards said.

Partner up

If the conversation reaches a point where you feel like you can better understand the other person’s perspective, you’ve made progress.

Now try to partner up on common ground, Dr. Richards said.

Identify ideas, big or small, on which you agree.

“If there’s a way for you to share goals … it’s another way to further validate and create more of a partnering in that situation,” she said.

Where there’s shared goals and experiences, there’s opportunity for harmony.

When to seek help

Learn to recognize when this process isn’t working—for the other person, or for you.

“Recognize when you do need to step away so you can regulate how you’re feeling, so that you can approach it from a calm, rational perspective,” Dr. Richards said.

If these types of tense exchanges happen with regularity in your life, it may help to seek counseling, she said.

This applies, too, in situations where you’re on the receiving end of someone’s anger.

Ultimately, we’re all responsible for our emotional reactions, Dr. Richards said.

“But it’s easier said than done,” she said. “These things happen in milliseconds.”