Verbal De-escalation: Responding To Anger From Those Impacted By High Stress

Verbal De-escalation: Responding To Anger From Those Impacted By High Stress

By Bob VandePol, MSW

This pandemic is a highly emotional event that produces more highly emotional events. The emotional reactions are also contagious. People are afraid, uncertain, sad, frustrated, and exhausted. Sometimes those emotions morph into anger. We can all do well to master tactics for mitigating its potential negative impact.

Let’s talk about some tactics for defusing anger:

Preserve their dignity.

Respond in a respectful way. Sometimes moving the conversation to a private (but safe) setting spares them the added embarrassment of losing it in public. An audience can also fuel additional emotional explosion.

Acknowledge the incident and its impact upon the person.

Language like “I certainly understand being angry in situations like this.” communicates that you are taking their concern seriously and respectfully. Denial, minimization, projecting blame elsewhere, or sweeping it under the rug only serve to incite further rage.

Listen actively.

Reflect back what you hear. Time is your friend so give them time for their body chemistry to self-regulate. People want to be heard and understood.

Be non-defensive and don’t take it personally.

Although difficult, try to reframe their aggressiveness toward yourself as “They need a target for their anger and must view me as strong enough to take it.”

Ask questions for clarification without it seeming like interrogation.

Get curious. Asking rather than telling can be disarming. Tone is important so they do not feel attacked back. Avoid an argumentative tone. This is not a competition and winning the battle likely means losing the war.

Be calm but intently focused upon them.

Speak a bit more slowly, calmly, and lower in timbre. There is tremendous power in calm presence.

Identify and align with the healthy part of their message.

(Any healthy part of their message). For example, if someone is irate and projecting blame following a workplace mistake, language such as “I admire the fact that you really care about the quality of our work. This is really important to you” can help you align and reduce defensiveness.

Seek to problem-solve together.

Try to identify one reasonable next step; even if it is setting time for a problem-solving meeting about their concern.

When indicated, accept responsibility for a mistake.

Taking a one-down position from a stance of strength can be very disarming.

Remember … anger is contagious. So is calm.

Good crisis management prevents a bad situation from getting even worse. Serving as “anger designated driver” for people when they are not at their best can contain the issue and avoid additional problems.


Bob VandePol, MSW serves as Executive Director for the Pine Rest Employee and Church Assistance Programs which provides Critical Incident Response services to business, organizations, schools and universities as well as faith communities.

Active as a keynote speaker, Mr. VandePol has published and been quoted in business and clinical journals, co-authored book chapters addressing workplace response to tragedy and has been featured as subject matter expert in numerous video training series. Mr. VandePol can be contacted at 616.258.7548 or bob.vandepol@pinerest.org.

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