Knowing How to Talk to Angry People is a Skill You Can Take to Any Job

There’s no getting away from them – dealing with pissed off people at work can be a daily occurrence. Learning to handle them correctly will not only make your life easier, it’ll get you ahead.

There’s a Gary Larson cartoon that features what appears to be God slaving over a stew with planet Earth in it. Various ingredients are lined up, including “Med. Skinned People,” “Birds,” and “Trees.” Then, as He adds another ingredient to the pot, a thought bubble reads, “And just to make it interesting. . .”

“Jerks.”

Interesting? Maybe. Difficult, definitely–especially when they fly off the handle at work. No matter what job you have, at some point, you’ll deal with some jerk who’s angry with you.

But there are different kinds of “angry” in different professions. Knowing how to deal with such individuals is a life skill you can take into any job.

1. The Passive Aggressive “Angry”

This kind of anger wears a thin veil of politeness to fall back on should you call their bluff. In addition to their condescending tone, these people might conclude an angsty email with a “Good Night.” Period. No exclamation point.

There are many ways to deal with this type of person, but one suggestion is not to meet their level. You’ve obviously gotten under their skin in some way, and they desperately want you to know it without confronting you. In this case, when formulating your response, act as if you interpreted the email with casual attention. No big deal. “Sorry about that. Have a wonderful weekend!”

2. In-your-face “Angry”

This might be one of the hardest forms with which to deal. Naturally, retail positions experience the brunt of in-your-face aggression because venues like malls, coffee places, and mechanic shops are rooted in human interaction (you pay for the meal AND the service at the restaurant).

First, you can’t throw a table in reality-show fashion and storm out. Remember that this person is more than likely mad at your role–not you specifically. Whether you’re a sales rep dealing with a client or a manager consoling a VP, you have to make sure this person is happy when he or she is done talking with you: “I understand where you are coming from. Let’s see what I can do.” To diffuse the anger, go above and beyond the call of duty; in the end, you’ll look like the bigger man anyway for not losing your cool.

3. Silent Treatment “Angry”

This person assumes ignoring you will fix things. In reality, it just gets them added attention. If you have a girlfriend, you probably think you know how to deal with this. If you have an ex-girlfriend, you probably know that you don’t know how to deal with this.

Workplace example: You make a joke about how lame Snuggies are, forgetting that Darla in the cubicle next to you bought you a Snuggie at last year’s office gift exchange. She’s pissed, and smokes you out with silence. The best that you can do is apologize, and treat her as you normally would. You can even reiterate that you were joking, and if she still keeps her lips sealed, all you can do is let the baby sit in the corner until she decides it’s right to come out.

4. Two-faced “Angry”

This person tells you everything’s fine to your face, then deliberately goes behind your back and throws you under the bus. For example, you’re working on a project with a co-worker, and the co-worker him-hahs around before agreeing with you on a certain project outcome. Later, you find out said co-worker went to the boss and said they think the project’s going in the wrong direction.

The best way to combat this angry is to confront the person. Tell them you’ve learned that they’re dissatisfied, but that you’re happy to address any concerns and make corrections to get back on the same page. Tell them to come see you first if they have a problem. “Two-faced angry” people are often terrified of confrontation; otherwise, they would have gone to you in the first place with the problem. If you show them how it’s done, they just might follow in your footsteps.

5. Wrongly-informed “Angry”

This person is upset, but has all of the facts wrong–jumping to conclusions. When it comes to the workplace, what’s tough is that you have to be gentle; you can’t totally call the person out on their inattention to detail because you’ll look like an asshole and you’ll humiliate the person in the process.

Adjust the anger level by calmly saying you can see how they might get this wrong (even if you don’t), but that in fact the reverse has occurred. Don’t argue with them or demean them; quietly explain how the situation is perceived differently and what exactly is taking place through supporting evidence.

When it comes to the workplace, dealing with the same people day in and day out, you can often observe anger triggers over time. Try to make note of what sets people off. If you know Ted doesn’t like anyone to be late, always make sure you’re a few minutes early. If Susan has a stack of files on her desk that she’s still slaving over and you have another project in mind for her, email her to see when a good time to start the new project would be. Knowing what angers people can be beneficial to your work life. Plus, you can always use it to your advantage if you ever DO want to piss them off in the future.

Megan McLachlan currently resides in the Pittsburgh area where she freelance writes, drinks coffee, and obsesses over popular culture. She was an English major, but doesn't think she wasted her life. Yet. Her blog is megoblog.com.

  • http://humansarestoopid.com Hooker

    I didn’t realize there were so many different kinds of jerks. I thought you either were one or not, haha.

    The problem with approaching angry people rationally is that anger is not rational. It’s emotional. And oftentimes these folks simply like to be angry.

    I agree that the best way to meet them is to NOT get down into the muck with them, but sometimes that just doesn’t work.

    At that point, I just ignore their stupidity.

    Nice post.

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  • Megan McLachlan

    Thanks for the feedback! You’re right. Some people just like to be angry. I remember while working at a movie theater, when I saw the old people come in, I knew they just wanted to rumble when it came down to senior discounts and how expensive they were.

  • http://thegreengrandma.blogspot.com Hana

    Nice job, Megan! Well written piece with useful info.

  • Frank

    You forgot Pop You One In The Snoot Angry (best response: run like hellt), and the ultimate angry, Glock 9mm Angry (best response: die).

  • Eileen

    Good one, Megan – Yes, your Starbucks peeps hear you and nod appreciatively! I LOLed all the way through #3 – hilarious! Keep up the good work : )

  • Eesha

    Hey, no. 1 hit home as this is the worst one! I’ve had to really tell myself to not fall to the ruse of veiled rudeness, as I am a very straightforward person.

    I also believe there is another kind of angry. There are some (rare) colleagues you meet who will get angry but they appreciate the back and forth with you to hash out real issues in a very clear light. I’ve come to appreciate this kind of anger. that doesn’t mean I look forward to it, but if a person’s gonna show some anger, I’d rather he show a genuine kind, not a throw you under the bus kind.

    Eesha
    Singapore

  • Megan McLachlan

    Thanks, Eesha! Sometimes “genuine” anger is helpful!

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