If there is one thing that inevitably comes up in my sessions with clients, it is dealing with anger. Whether it is the client’s anger issues that they themselves are experiencing, or the anger that is being directed at them from someone else.
Anger is one of those things that in society, we kind of cringe at, turn another cheek to, don’t know how to deal with. Ever noticed this? We get angry at someone, and blow up, and they just draw a blank stare, or walk away, or, may just start crying and ‘tune out’. On the opposite end, we look at the guy blowing up at someone out in a social situation, roll our eyes, and think to ourselves, ‘wow… what an ass!’.
Know this-that anger, is never really about anger. I always tell folks that anger is the top layer of the onion -so to speak. Beneath that top layer, is mounds of other stuff, that can take a long time to get to the ‘bulb’ of. Is it pleasant to carry? No. Is it fun to have it directed at you? No. But armed with some basic strategies, anger can be quelled. The devil can meld into an angel if properly attended to. (note here: there are some obvious exceptions to the rule of course. If someone is very angry and in the midst of committing a crime that you witness, obviously, you are going to call 911!)
Why do people get angry? My opinion, is that it basically boils down to 1 (or all) of 3 key factors:
1. They feel they have been wronged, or hurt
2. They feel that an injustice has occurred (perhaps in a work environment)
3. Their needs are not being met
When You Are The One Who Is Angry:
Take a deep breath. Take 5-10 deep breaths if you have to. Make a promise to yourself, that before you speak to the one(s) that you are angry with, that you will take an (at least) 10-15 minute pause. During that 10-15 minute pause, as you are reflecting on why you are so upset, ask yourself this question: ‘in the state that I am in right now, how would I feel if someone came at me like this?’ You likely would not feel good. Now, ask yourself if someone were angry with you, how would you like them to approach you? You probably would want the person to address the issue, but not attack you. Know the old saying, ‘treat others as you would like to be treated?’ Well, that is the basic premise here. Once you have calmed down enough, to identify how you would like to be approached were someone angry with you, you can plan your course of action. I always coach people to write down a script of sorts. A basic script of how to broach the issue. Re-read it and while you may not use the exact words when you address the issue, you will certainly be more level headed, and less emotionally driven and heated.
When The Anger Is Directed At You:
We have all been there. And man, it never feels good. I don’t know about anyone else, but I always feel like I wish I had a suit of armor on to defend myself. While it is verbally driven, it can feel so attacking, that you feel like you need to go into battle mode.
Keeping in mind what I stated prior, about one of the basic underlying reasons for anger, is that the person in front of you feels that their needs are not being met, the object here- is to diffuse. This is not easy to do, and yes-it takes practice. The best way to illustrate this, I feel, is for me to give a case example from the past. It went something like this (this has been edited a bit down from the actual conversation, but it did not go on much more than 10 minutes in total):
Client John Doe (very angry , yelling at me): ‘You are a terrible therapist! You couldn’t fit me in for a 2nd session this week.. I am so pissed!’
Me: (calm tone): ‘It sounds like you are very frustrated that I did not have a second slot available for you. I am sorry that you felt I was not being as available to you as you may have liked’.
Client John Doe (a bit calmer-but still angry): “Yeah.. yeah.. it did feel like that! I had a lot on my mind and on my plate to talk about!’
Me: (again, calm tone): ‘I would imagine that you did have a lot to discuss, and I want you to know that I do take our sessions seriously and did do my best to try to open up another spot. It is unfortunate that I was not able to do that’.
Client John Doe (calmer-nodding): ‘Yeah.. it really was unfortunate… ‘
Me: (again, calm tone, unchanging): ‘Going forward, is there anything that I can do to help this situation?’
Client John Doe (much calmed down): ‘Um.. I don’t know… I guess if you don’t have another opening.. well you don’t have one.. I guess I assumed that you would get a cancellation, and I could come in for a 2nd visit this week’.
Me: (unchanging still): ‘Yeah, I thought that would happen too. And it is so unfortunate that it did not. Is there a different way that we can broach this in the future, so that you are not feeling that I am not keeping your needs in mind?’
Client John Doe (again, much calmed down and hesitant): ‘I don’t know.. I guess it really isn’t your fault.. you did not get a cancellation, and it was a gamble to begin with, now that I think back on it.. I am sorry I blew up. That was uncalled for’.
Me: (unchanging still): ‘There is no need to apologize. I really wish we could have had a 2nd session this week. Maybe we can plot ahead a bit? A couple weeks out, we can schedule two visits?’
Client John Doe: (very calm now, and smiling): ‘Yes, that sounds good. ‘
END OF STORY. DONE. If you look deeper into this case example I gave, you will see, that I did not get defensive (and how easy would that have been to do with the statement: ‘You are a terrible therapist!’)
It takes tremendous skill and practice to not take things personally, and to dive deeper into what the person is trying to tell you-and in this case, this client was upset, because they were genuinely hoping, that they could have a 2nd session with me that week (though it was a gamble, and banking on the fact that I would get a cancellation, which I did not). In that moment, he did not even think about that factor-which had been discussed prior. He was upset, because he did not get the need met that he had-of a 2nd session that week.
Once I validated his anger, and frustration, he started calming.. and in the end, we were able to come up with a plan going forward-to schedule it out as 2 visits, and not bank on me getting a cancellation.
You do not have to be a therapist to practice this. Really when it comes down to it, it is basically the following ‘formula’:
1. Listen to what the other person is saying.
2. Validate their feelings-or at least what you think they may be feeling.
3. Aim to strategize with them on a plan of action going forward.
If you can do this… you will be amazed, at the results.
** One final note: I hear often that people are not comfortable having anger. Know this: anger is normal! I don’t think you can live and breathe without having anger at some point or another! It is what you do with it-that matters**.