Responding to angry confrontations

I am fortunate to have experienced anger only a few times in my life where that anger was directed at me. However this also means that I have less experience in responding well to anger when it does come my way.

Here I would like to give a specific process for how I might best respond to an angry confrontation in a respectful and non-defensive manner.

I have not actually made use of this process yet, so I don’t really know how it performs. I would love to hear from you if you are willing to share your own experiences in responding to confrontations or have your own process.

  • Situation 1: An opening salvo of angry or tactfully frustrated SMS messages or an email is received.

    • Try upgrade to high-bandwidth rich communication immediately: Call (without negotiating scheduling). Be prepared to leave voicemail with the first few talking points.

  • Situation 2: An opening salvo of angry or tactfully frustrated voice-to-voice or face-to-face statements is made by an other.

    • (If asked in-person why I’m looking away to open this checklist, which could be interpreted as disrespectful: “This is an important and delicate situation, so I want to be sure I respond in the best way I know. Please allow me a moment to orient myself.”)

    • (If teased or mocked for using a checklist: “Emotionally charged situations are not natural for me. I have found checklists to be helpful in navigating them.”)

  • Begin rich communication

    • Acknowledge feelings: “I see you’re upset.”

    • Tentatively engage: “Do you want to talk about it now?”

      • No? “Okay. We’ll talk later.”

    • Listen, without interrupting, withholding immediate response.

      • Observe the other’s concrete observations and generalizations. Especially those not in the opening salvo.

      • Observe repeated generalizations, which are likely to be more impactful to or more strongly held by the other.

    • Replay conversation back, focusing on the other’s concrete assertions and acknowledging generalizations, regardless of agreement.

      • Verify that details were conveyed and understood, regardless of agreement.

    • Consider. Form an initial interpretation silently.

      • Beware of Confabulation: When folks are angry (or otherwise experiencing very strong emotions) it is not uncommon for assertions or accusations they make to be after-the-fact confabulated generalizations to explain their initial emotional reactions. Focus on concrete details they cite - which are more reliable - rather than on generalizations.

    • Discuss:

      • Contribute my own concrete observations, focusing on any that are related to the other’s generalizations.

      • If the other has made generalizations that I disagree with, explain my own alternate interpretations/generalizations based on the additional concrete observations that I (and now we) have at our disposal. Never directly contradict the other’s generalizations.

      • If it is determined that a transgression (i.e. an action inconsistent with values or norms) did in fact occur, apologize. Reacknowledge how it made the other feel.

      • Brainstorm how to move forward in the current situation.

      • Brainstorm how to reduce the likelihood of a similar undesirable situation in the future.

That’s all folks. Maybe this checklist or the philosophy underlying it will be of assistance to you in responding to a confrontation.