Is it just me, or is the world getting angrier? Half an hour of news updates is enough to make my stress rise and my frustrations simmer. What makes you angry? How do you feel when reading stories of injustice? How do you react when someone mindlessly lets you down? We can’t control other people’s emotions. But we can learn how to respond to their anger.
We can’t live a normal life without treading on anger mines. Sometimes, no matter what we do or say, everything blows up around us. Some situations absolutely merit an angry response. Other times, an angry response is more of a projection of how another person is feeling.
We can’t control other people, only our reaction to them. So what can we do when we are at the receiving end of someone else's anger? Let’s discuss when it’s appropriate to apologize, empathize, understand, explain or even walk away.
- Understanding anger
- Three types of anger
- How to respond to the different anger types
- Wrapping up
Wouldn’t it be great if anger came with some sort of warning siren, so we could prepare ourselves? But actually, to a certain extent, it does. The more self-aware we are the better our understanding of what pushes our anger buttons.
Anger comes in many different guises. Did you know, anger is considered a secondary emotion? This means primary emotions such as fear or sadness sit underneath the anger and can often be expressed as anger. Sounds confusing right? Other primary emotions that anger may disguise include; fear, anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, shame, jealousy, hurt and worry.
With this in mind, it may come as no surprise that anger is recognized as one of the stages of grief.
So, whilst we may feel the wrath of some hostile words or passive-aggressive comments. It may be worth recognizing that very often there is more going on when someone is angry.
Three types of anger
I didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see the man charging at me with a knife was angry with a capital A!
He wasn’t angry with me specifically, he didn’t know me. But he sure as hell was going to take his anger out on me. Maybe he was mad at the uniform I was wearing. But that was just a secondary emotion. There was more going on. Either way, I didn’t hang about too long to find out. I stepped aside and let the police dog swiftly take him down.
Sometimes it is obvious when someone is angry with us. Other times it’s not so much what they say, but the tone and manner in which they say it, that is the giveaway.
1. Passive aggressive anger
This can be a particularly challenging type of anger to deal with. There are various behaviors that come under this banner. It could be someone giving us the silent treatment, or blaming us for something. It could look like an individual engaging with a group we are in, but ignoring us. Even an avoidance of eye contact. Very often it is in the comments, which sound nice but are delivered with aggression.
Passive-aggressive anger is often very subtle. It can be difficult to deal with. The aggressor may simply deny there is anything wrong and suggest it’s all in your imagination!
An old friend used to make passive-aggressive comments about my childfree life. I understand the responsibilities and ties of parenthood, but we were both following our chosen paths. Yet, she seemed so mad and resentful of me and my lack of children-oriented commitments.
2. Assertive anger
This is the healthiest and most positive expression of anger. The aggressor is aware of their emotions and is able to express themselves in a balanced and assertive manner.
A strong message when expressed with assertive anger does not have generalizations or exaggerations. The point is specific and outlines how the person feels.
I was having some difficulties with a colleague who was displaying classic passive-aggressive signals to me. But his behavior left me feeling isolated and angry. Once I found my voice I confidently broached the subject with him directly. I outlined what his offending actions were, the impact they had on me and what needed to change. This quickly nipped the escalating situation in the bud.
3. Openly aggressive anger
This type of anger is the one we often think of when we think of anger. This is the openly angry and shouting individual. This is the person who is yelling all sorts of profanities and allegations. They may be physically violent towards another person or to items around them. This anger is out of control and very often misunderstood by the aggressor themselves.
How to respond to the different anger types
Now we have an understanding of the complexities of anger and the different ways anger can manifest. Let’s figure out how we can deal appropriately with people who are angry with us. We will address each anger style in turn and consider a suitable response of handling this.
Effective ways to respond to passive aggressive anger
These little microaggressions may initially seem small and insignificant but they mount up. Do you have a friend or colleague who leaves you feeling prickled, but you can’t quite put your finger on why? The chances are they are being passive-aggressive with you.
Passive-aggressive comments lack authenticity. They are the expression of negative comments in an indirect manner. They leave the feeling of a big fat elephant in the room.
It takes courage and confidence to deal with passive aggression. You have choices as to how best to resolve this:
- Ignore it.
- Address it.
- Remove it.
You can ignore the behavior, in the hope it will resolve itself. But be aware this may not be a long-term solution.
You can address the passive aggression behavior directly. For instance, you could speak up to the aggressor, “Is everything ok? You haven’t looked at me or spoken to me all morning, do you want to talk about this?”
Maybe a partner is punishing you for something you did wrong, which you thought was resolved. Perhaps you have already apologized and made amends. They are pretending to be over the blip, but are holding on to it. Communication is key here.
Be aware, passive-aggressive behavior doesn’t easily mutate into assertive anger. As such, whilst initiating an open and honest conversation is a great solution here, such conversations may not go particularly well.
Lastly, sometimes the best option is to remove ourselves as the target for passive-aggressive behavior. We may have already addressed this with the aggressor, to no avail. Or we may not feel it is appropriate. We are then left with the choice to limit the time we spend with the aggressor and remove ourselves as a target.
This is covered as well in our article on how to deal with negative people.
In a relationship, this may look like going for a walk or even going away for a few days. In the workplace, you may need to request a change of teams. I have stopped seeing my friend who seemed so angry with me for not having children, as talking about things didn’t help.
Effective ways to respond to assertive anger
This is the optimum situation. We have scope to grow in this situation. Similarly, this is the best way we ourselves can deal with our own anger towards others.
Listen when someone tells us they are angry or upset with us. Those who are displaying assertive anger will maturely and concisely explain their anger. It is only fair that we:
- Listen and try to empathize with their stance.
- Do not minimize their feelings.
- Take responsibility for our actions.
- Apologize for our offending words or actions.
- Thank them for their honesty .
Then together, learning points can be discussed to avoid future mishaps.
My partner told me he was annoyed I spoke over him whilst having dinner with friends. I listened and I apologized.
- I put myself in his shoes and empathized.
- I made a note to stop jumping into conversations early.
- I recognized how this made him feel.
- I did not retaliate with something he had done “wrong” and create a tit-for-tat situation.
- I did not try to justify my actions.
As a result, we both felt listened to and the mutual respect in our relationship deepened.
Effective ways to respond to openly aggressive anger
If you feel your safety is threatened in any way, it is important to create a distance between you and the aggressor. Can you leave the situation? If not, please consider locking yourself in a room and calling the emergency services. For your own safety, this is what you must do.
Someone displaying openly aggressive anger is often unpredictable, volatile and dangerous.
Remember to consider what the primary emotion of your anger is. We all respond differently to our emotions.
I had to deliver the devastating news of a death to a close relative. Some people in this situation wilt. They collapse in shock. This man went ballistic. He wrecked his house and expressed his anguish through anger. I stayed and provided comfort once he was exhausted.
Boundaries are important. Someone close to me is angry with me and angry with the world in general. But until she seeks help for the trauma and pain that's causing the anger, there is nothing I can do.
If I receive a hostile phone call, which is normally drink-infused, I enforce my boundaries. I tell her I will happily speak with her another time and clarify we can’t communicate when she is shouting and swearing at me. This is a difficult but essential boundary.
For your own well-being, don’t be a punching bag for other people.
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Anger and its triggers are complex. Anger is often the secondary emotion to deeper feelings.
We looked at 3 different types of anger; passive-aggressive anger, assertive anger, and openly aggressive anger. We considered different ways of dealing with people depending on which type of anger they were displaying.
Ultimately, we can not control other people. But we can control how we respond to them. We can choose if we ignore the anger behavior, address it or walk away. If at all possible try to guide the aggressor into assertive anger, so they can express the cause of their anger effectively. This is the best circumstance for a resolution.
Please always put your own health and safety first.
Have you had to deal with someone’s anger recently? I’d love to hear what you did to resolve the situation.