by Ian Scofield
When it comes to handling an encounter with someone who is angry or hostile there are many different stances we can take. For example, you could be the bull in the china shop or you could be the level-headed voice of reason. Either way, these tips to diffuse anger and hostility can help you make a situation easier.
The wrong foot approach to diffusing a situation is one that I recently had the chance to utilize. I was approached by a random store owner who proceeded to issue me commands to move my patrol car. When I explained why it was parked where it was and offered to move it, the store owner became incensed. After a couple of minutes of him continually arguing while I said I would move the car, I raised my hands and offered a hand.
We shook hands and I apologized for how we got off on the wrong foot. He shook my hand and we talked for about five to ten minutes like normal people. Turns out he has a nice business too.
Not all of these tips will work but this one is one that I have seen work amazingly or fail amazingly. When someone is upset and yelling at you, keep your breathing stable and remain calm. Just the sense of calm that you emit has the chance of calming the other person down. Emotions and actions tend to spread like a virus so when encountering anger and hostility it is easy to become hostile yourself.
Besides focusing on your breathing, you can also take these actions to help keep yourself calm:
Problem solving is a great way to diffuse anger. Ask the person politely to table the yelling so that you can find the root of their problem and work with them to find a solution. This technique requires that the person be in a mood in which they can still be reasoned with. Psychiatric subjects, intoxicated subjects, or otherwise altered mental status subjects may have trouble with problem solving. It may also work better with witnesses and victims than with people who are under arrest.
A good way to view problem solving is keeping the person you are talking within the present as opposed to the past or future. You want them to focus on what they can do for the now. Anything that has already happened is something that can be overcome and/or forgotten.
In law enforcement, you won’t always understand or agree with those that you encounter. That doesn’t mean that you can’t empathize for the reasons they are upset. For example, if a drug dealer is mad because someone stole his drugs, you can understand that having something you depend on being stolen is upsetting.
Be very careful for how you phrase an empathizing response. For example, saying that you know how someone is feeling is likely to cause trouble. Instead, try something like yeah, that would make me upset too.
Sometimes people are just mad or hostile because they don’t feel like they are being heard. Active listening helps to put these people at ease. Listen to what people have to say and respond back to them and acknowledge what they are saying. This helps them to know that you are actually listening. Many classes on interaction and de-escalation will teach active listen as a skill. It is also taught at customer service classes.
Occasionally repeating something that the other person has said will help them to know that you are listening to them.
Knowing these tips and building upon them are great skills for any profession. They don’t just have to be used for suspects either. Using these tips can help you with witnesses, victims, the public, and more. You might even find them helpful at home but I didn’t tell you that. Look for the continuation to this article at the start of next week!
About the author:
Ian graduated Seattle University with a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice with a Specialization in Administration of Justice. He has held positions as an Auxiliary Department of Public Safety Officer, a Security Patrol Supervisor, and as an in-house security officer for a major medical center. Through all of this he has picked up a wealth of experience, training, and education that he is happy to pass on to others. Ian can be reached at email@example.com.
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