Tips for Communicating with Angry or Violent People

A number of years ago I was involved in the termination of an employee. He was about eight inches taller than me and had 70 or 80 pounds on me. His supervisor delivered the bad news, we reviewed the termination process and documents and then stood to leave.

Suddenly, he was standing toe to toe looking down on me. His fists were clenched at his side as he yelled. I responded as calmly and quietly as a could. This went on for a few minutes, which felt like an eternity. At any moment, I expected one of those fists lashing at my head. Eventually, he turned, left the room and I collapsed into the nearest chair, my nerves shot.

As you can imagine, losing a job provokes a wide range of reactions from people. Some respond with shock and walk away quietly in a daze, others break down in tears and others still get violent and abusive.

I have learned a few lessons about communicating with people who are angry, hostile or violent.

  • Focus your attention on the other person to let them know you are interested in what they have to say.
  • Do not glare or stare, which may be perceived as a challenge.
  • Remain calm and try to calm the other person. Don’t let the other person’s anger become your anger.
  • Remain conscious of how you deliver your words.
  • Speak slowly, quietly and confidently.
  • Speak simply. Do not rely on official language or complex terminology.
  • Avoid communicating a lot of technical or complicated information when emotions are high.
  • Listen carefully. Do not interrupt or offer unsolicited advice or criticism.
  • Encourage the person to talk. Do not tell the person to relax or calm down.
  • Remain open-minded and objective.
  • Use silence as a calming tool.
  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings. Indicate that you can see he or she is upset.

Non-verbal behaviour

  • Keep your body language calm. Have a relaxed posture with unclenched hands and an attentive expression.
  • Position yourself so your exit from the situation is not blocked.
  • Position yourself at a right angle to the other person, not directly in front.
  • Allow adequate personal space —two to four feet.
  • Get on the same physical level as the other person: sit down if they are sitting, rather than standing over them.
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