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February 10, 2004

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Dr. Dorothy McCoy Maintaining Your Mental Edge
with Dr. Dorothy McCoy

Angry People: How to Cope with Them (and Smile)

(Your Back-up)

with Dr. Dorothy McCoy

We know from my previous article that extreme anger and rage are threats not only to our relationships and careers, but also to our health.

Human beings are purposeful; when we do something we normally have a goal in mind (although the goal may be subconscious). Anger achieves a goal: it creates distance. It would be irrational for a habitually angry person to complain of loneliness. Fury is also used to intimidate and threaten. Unfortunately, it often works; therefore the angry person is more likely to use it the next time he or she wants to win a dispute.

Do you think that cops are likely to come into contact with angry citizens? I bet you are right, it probably happens frequently. Bear in mind, this is behavior that has worked for them in the past, and they probably are not aware that there are more functional ways to handle a difference of opinion. Actually, they may not care. Nonetheless, your behavior will model the proper way to resolve an issue.

The first thing that I would suggest, if there is just one angry individual, is agree with him or her. This is a little manipulative so I feel somewhat guilty suggesting it. The good news is…it works. When you agree with the outraged person, find something with which you can truthfully agree. If he says, "You are a no good ____, for arresting me when I have done nothing except sell a little crack. Everyone does it. Why don't you go arrest a murderer?" What can you agree with? You can truthfully say, "Yes, this is certainly a dreadful situation for you." or "I can see that you are very distraught." You can also say, "If you will point out a murderer to me I will certainly arrest him." It is very difficult to argue with someone who is agreeing (to some degree) with one. Stay cool, speak slowly and turn the volume down from your normal speaking voice.

Here are some other techniques that will help you when you engage a furious citizen:

  • Stay calm (deep breathing and practice will help)

  • Listen to what the person has to say, before trying to talk to him or her. Don't argue, it produces no positive results.

  • Ask yourself, "How would I feel in his position?"

  • Don't antagonize the person; one angry human being is sufficient for any situation. Once you lose your temper you have lost control of the scene.

  • After you make a statement, wait for him to respond before you say more.

  • Keep him on one subject that can be resolved, don't follow him on various sidetracks. That game can go on forever.

  • Give him options, "You can do this or you can do that. Which would you prefer?"

  • You may not be able to resolve the issue. Just achieving quiet is a victory in itself (any parent can tell you that). Keep your goals reasonable and achievable.

  • Take threats seriously. Keep yourself safe. Enraged people are unpredictable.

  • Reinforce appropriate behavior, if he happens to use appropriate behavior. If he stops screaming at the top of his voice, that is improvement…let him know that you appreciate his new behavior

  • Avoid embarrassing him or her by showing respectful behavior whenever possible.

  • Abruptly change the subject to an area in which the person is competent or healthy. I had a client who would, with no prior warning, become frighteningly agitated and enraged. I don't particularly enjoy loud and threatening. Therefore, I would ask her a question about training dogs (an area in which she was an expert). She would immediately become a reasonable, competent person (for a while).

    Frequently, if you can convince the person to move from one physical location to another it will produce a change in behavior. You might say, "Would you mind moving to that chair, I think we will be able hear each other better." Be mindful that physical factors increase the likelihood of violence: lack of sleep, physical exhaustion, use of drugs, or alcohol, brain trauma, heat, hunger, cold, physical disability, chronic pain (N.C. Division of Social Services).

    As you know, the enraged person may become violent, especially if he has been violent in the past. It is helpful if you can get the citizen's record. If he has previously committed violent acts the probability of violence increases. Simple, logical, true… The more information you have, the better you will be prepared. Keep safe.

    I wish you luck out there in the streets. Remember, we are here as your back up whenever you need us.

    PoliceOne columnist Dr. Dorothy McCoy has been in private practice as a clinical counselor for 10 years. She is a diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and a law enforcement consultant. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (in North and South Carolina).

  • About the author

    PoliceOne columnist Dr. Dorothy McCoy has been in private practice as a clinical counselor for 10 years. She is a diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and a law enforcement consultant. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (in North and South Carolina).

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