Anger is one of the first emotions human beings experience but the last one we learn to effectively manage. Many people spend a lifetime denying, suppressing, displacing, and/or avoiding this troublesome sensation. Because anger usually occurs within an interpersonal context, it is a common experience and presents a challenge to all human beings.

Anger happens when we perceive an object, person, or event as threatening or when we experience the frustration of unmet expectations. Although anger seems to be a response to something outside of us, it most often is an intrapersonal event: we make ourselves angry. But, because anger is so unpleasant and human beings are so adept at projection, we usually attempt to locate the source of our anger outside ourselves with statements such as “you make me angry,” or, “you have irritating habits.”

Misdirected Anger

Frequently, we bear the brunt of someone else’s anger just because we happen to be there. Laura Huxley, in her aptly titled book, You Are Not the Target, views the anger of another person as negative energy that is dumped on us, just as ocean waves dump their energy on the beach. For example, you could have a customer who is experiencing family issues, health problems, or some other life challenge, and your product or service failed them at just the wrong time. You will become an easy outlet for their anger. In these scenarios (whether the customer’s anger is justified or not), it’s crucial to remove any hostility or frustration from the way you respond.

Dealing With Another Person’s Anger

To be angry simply because someone else is angry makes no sense, however, it happens a lot. Being the target of another person’s anger has high potential for hooking us into what is essentially someone else’s problem. This starts the anger cycle in ourselves, creating our own emotions to deal with, as well as the other person’s.

That said, how do we deal with angry customers? What about angry coworkers, or bosses?

Responding appropriately to another person’s anger can increase interpersonal learning and strengthen a relationship. Think about these four tips when dealing with angry customers or coworkers.

  1. Affirm the other’s feelings. An old Jules Feiffer cartoon devotes nine panels to one character building up his anger toward another. Finally, he verbally confronts the other with, “I hate you!” The other character replies, “Let us begin by defining your terms.” If a customer or colleague is angry with you, affirming their anger means you recognize it and express a willingness to respond. Rejecting or dismissing their anger usually heightens its intensity. Bottom line: sympathize and empathize.
  2. Acknowledge your own defensiveness. When appropriate, let the other person know what you are feeling and acknowledge that your own tenseness may lead to miscommunication and distortion. It’s also important to develop an awareness of how your body is impacted by the other person’s anger. When in a tense situation with a customer, does your heart rate increase? Do your shoulders creep up towards your ears? Take note of these physical reactions (they could be cues that defensiveness on your part is setting in) and use them as reminders to stay in control of your emotions.
  3. Clarify and diagnose. Give and request specific feedback so you can understand exactly why the other party is unhappy. Ask questions to help you discover who owns what in the situation. When you understand the root cause, you’re better positioned to respond and act in a way that’s personal and helpful.
  4. Move forward with a solution (and the relationship). If warranted, acknowledge regret and apologize. Then, find the solution and move toward productive and engaging interactions with your customers and coworkers in the future.

Anger does not disappear as we refuse to deal with it; it continues to grow within us. If we deal with anger directly, our discomfort is rewarded by the new learning and self-strengthening that occurs. If we deal with it indirectly, we can easily trap ourselves into polarization, passivity, “gunnysacking," name-calling, and blaming. Anger is not the worst thing in the world. It is a powerful source of energy, which, if creatively and appropriately expressed, leads to both personal and interpersonal growth.