Why can't I all just get along?
November 23, 2005 10:11 PM   Subscribe

I stay calm and collected when people are getting angry and yelling at me. I have been told that this is an "infuriating" trait. What to do?

I grew up in a house with lots of angry yelling people. When they got mad, they would yell, and their volume and irrationality would escalate rapidly. I learned at a very early age this sort of behavior wouldn't get me anywhere; there was always someone who would yell louder and be more unreasonable then me.

As a result, I almost never raise my voice in anger. I can't even remember the last time I did this. The more irrational and illogical someone becomes, the more logical and incisive I become.

When people get mad and want to start a fight, I am aware that there is a metatextual exchange going on - they want to vent their anger, and they want me to do the same. This is part of how they solve their problems. However, I just don't play along.

As these exchanges progress, people get angrier and angrier. They start to use "bad argument" tactics. I stay calm and logical, even if on the inside I'm feeling outraged.

What to do? I don't want to be one of the idiotic yelling people. However, staying calm and logical seems to make the problem worse. I feel like I'm looking for a resolution to the situation, wheras the other person wants to involve me in their little emotional psychodrama that I really don't want any part in.

Is this a problem with me, or a problem with people in general?

Any help at all would be appreciated.
posted by afroblanca to Human Relations (49 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Your use of the words 'little emotional psychodrama' suggests that you don't have much respect for whoever is venting at you. If you're genuinely impassive despite unreasonable attacks, then good for you. But if your unwillingness to become involved reflects a smug superiority then (a) it's not admirable at all and (b) it's very likely to be detectable by the venter, and extremely irritating for them.
posted by beniamino at 10:19 PM on November 23, 2005


Great question title, and great question. I often struggle with the same thing.

I suggest that the price of your being calm and collected may be that you're also so calm as to be unnaturally detached. People react to empathy. If you don't want to be an angry idiot with the rest, be a friendly animal instead, or at least show the exasperation you're no doubt feeling.

Part of their rage at you is that you're not mirroring the effort they put into being mad at you, so you're making them feel impotent. When your ultimate goal is to get to a resolution and get them to stop being emotional, you should decide that your logical response is an emotional response, and let loose. You can practice by remembering past arguments in which you were calm with your eyes closed and pretending to get really worked up about it instead. Just meditate on it and if you catch a wisp of emotion, chase that wisp rather than allowing it to dissipate. You'll be back to acting like an idiot in no time.

If everyone was a purely rational being, your behavior would make sense. Since they're not, it doesn't. In this case your most purely rational move is to be an animal like everyone else and respond biologically.
posted by evariste at 10:24 PM on November 23, 2005


Despite my persona here, I tend do the exact same thing, especially if I'm stone cold sober. It can actually be really really aggressive-seeming to some people - because of the smugness that they're inferring from your calm, I guess - and it makes them nuts. When it gets really bad I'll just walk away and have a smoke or something, if possible, or just remain silent. That's what kind of works for me, though I'd love to hear what everyone else thinks, because it's not all that advantageous.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:24 PM on November 23, 2005


Neither with you nor with them. It's the byproduct of inflexible, incompatible discussion styles. They think that you don't care because you're not 'showing that you care' and you think they're not interested in solving the problem because they're being dramatic. That's why you get more outraged and become more logical and they yell louder and make worse arguments.

In truth, they probably do want to solve the problem, and you obviously do care. In my experience trying to calmly, logically convince someone you care as much as they do while they're in the midst of a freak attack will not be successful. If they perceive more emotional investment on your part, you'll have a much better chance of causing them to see that, lo and behold, you do care, and with any luck, you'll have a better chance of lowering the volume and increasing the level of rationality. It's easier to exact concessions from people when they feel you've started out by giving them some consideration. Are there ways you could allow your emotions to show without appearing directly opposed to the other person, enough so that he or she could no longer rely on the empty venting of anger or the easy negation of disagreeing with your style?
posted by rebirtha at 10:25 PM on November 23, 2005


Mirroring other people's emotional states and feeling empathy is something we've spent millions of years evolving the ability to do, as social animals. Don't fall into the trap of "my mind is so powerful that I can transcend my animal instincts, and therefore I should". No, you shouldn't, unless everyone you know does. It's a network externality problem-until everyone acts like a Vulcan, your acting like a Vulcan will meet hostile reactions from the rest of the human race, who don't value Vulcanity and see it as a personal affront. So don't do it.
posted by evariste at 10:27 PM on November 23, 2005


I don't think there's an easy answer, but beyond logic and rationality, consider the cultural part of the exchange happening here (even if we use the term "culture" loosely in this case).

You may be dealing with people where an exchange of emotion is a cultural part of their dialog -- in their (wacky) world, unless both parties are getting emotional, they're just not communicating at all. So, it's not just a little psychodrama, it's a cultural disconnect.

So, it could be that where you see "venting anger," the other party sees "invitation to join the fun."

I had a minor epiphany about this once, visiting some white trash relatives. Why are these idiots always fighting with each other, I thought? Why are they picking fights with me? Then I realized that to them, fighting was normal, and what's more, they didn't even consider it fighting at all. Me, the quiet, logical one -- that's the guy with the problem! Not shouting, not flying off the handle -- what a jerk!

My advice? Deliberate show of empathy. "Wow, you seem really angry. Yeah, it sure does drive me crazy when X happens." Then move on with the rest of your argument/conversation/whatever. This way, you're showing that you're recognizing their emotion and, in a way, validating it. But you're not joining in the shouting and the yelling.
posted by frogan at 10:30 PM on November 23, 2005


the more logical and incisive I become

So you see it. From the other side of the table it may very well come across as dismissive. There are times when anger surfaces as a signpost to an underlying emotion. If a certain feeling isn't getting recognized, sometimes anger steps in to highlight it and get your attention. Your ability to utterly ignore that signpost may keep your heels nice and cool, but perhaps whoever it is whose anger is trying to tell you something isn't so impressed with your "logic."

I stay calm and logical, even if on the inside I'm feeling outraged.

Actually, if you are outraged on the inside, I think you should question your ability to judge your calmness and rationality well. If you really are angry inside, you won't read yourself reliably. You don't have to become the kind of person who yells and throws things, but it sounds like you are afraid to touch your own anger at all, express the way you truly feel in any measure, prefering to hide in a rationality that may very well be illusory to you and insulting to others.

If you're not communicating the way you really feel, you're not being entirely open. Any emotional dishonesty is infuriating. Lying is infuriating.

I don't know you so I can't pretend to even be guessing. Just throwing out food for thought.
posted by scarabic at 10:32 PM on November 23, 2005


the other person wants to involve me in their little emotional psychodrama that I really don't want any part in.

I'm reminded of this Onion article:
Wife Always Dragging Husband Into Her Marital Problems

posted by scarabic at 10:51 PM on November 23, 2005


I think people are overstating the whole "you need to freak out more" line of argument. The ability to remain calm - internally as well as externally - is a wonderful ability. You should cultivate it, and develop it as a positive thing instead of being held captive to it. As Frogan suggests above, you could try acknowledging the other person's anger instead of being dismissive of it. Seriously, becoming "an idiot" too is not a good idea, especially since you have no practice, you'll stink at it.

The world really does need more calm people in it. You are halfway there, in your outward manner, now you need to learn to be calm inside as well, and you'll find people not getting "infuriated" by you.
posted by Invoke at 11:06 PM on November 23, 2005


Ok, I don't want to spend much time commenting on this thread - I really just want advice. Something that should be cleared up, though:

Your use of the words 'little emotional psychodrama' suggests that you don't have much respect for whoever is venting at you.

When people start yelling and using "bad argument," I have to admit that I lose a certain amount of respect for them. At that point, I just want to find out what they need from me, and all they're giving me is semantic garbage. I truly do care, and I'm willing to make some concessions that would lead to a better relationship. However, their yelling puts me on the defensive, and I tend to fight back with the only tactics that I have - calmness and logic.

I appreciate everyone's answers, and I definitely think that the solution has something to do with my showing that I care without having to yell at them. The hard question, though, is how I go about doing this. Any thoughts on the matter?
posted by afroblanca at 11:14 PM on November 23, 2005


I used to be the same way, and it made things very difficult, especially when I had a girlfriend who felt that a good shouting-match once a week was a healthy and necessary way to let off steam. Of course, any time I was goaded into losing my cool, that was seen as so out-of-character as to be dangerous and unpleasant.

I don't know what changed, but nowadays when anyone yells at me I just burst into tears. That's not an improvement.

Anyhow, when dragged into a yelling-match, I eventually found these guidelines to sometimes be helpful:
Don't try to tell the other party to calm down.
Don't calmly point out the flaws in their logic.
Don't resort to insulting comments (apparently their heat-of-the-moment insults are to be forgiven them but your cold and calculating ones are entirely different).
If the argument is actually about something, maybe you can stubbornly stick to your position without attacking theirs ("I think we should do this, because...").
Above all (and I think this is what scarabic just said) be sure you're not being snide, hurtful and equally illogical in a calm manner. Not fighting back is one thing; being cold-bloodedly nasty is quite another.
posted by nowonmai at 11:25 PM on November 23, 2005


I am like you.

I too have trained myself (for various, valid reasons that aren't important here) to remain aloof during arguments, for most of the reasons you bring up. Ultimately I think it's counterproductive, and I don't like being the loud and angry guy.

The problem is twofold: half of it is the problem you mention: without being somewhat emotional, it's often tough to get people to respond. The other half, which I have run afoul of (but you do not mention), is that once I do become emotionally involved (once I "snap," perhaps) I am capable of saying phenomenally hurtful things. In both cases, the key is to engage what the other person is feeling, not just what they are saying.

The easiest way to do this is simply to say it. I like to think that I am a good listener; however, because people as a whole (in the U.S., anyway) do not seem to be very good listeners, many people assume that if you do not see things their way, you are not listening to them. You can counter this by making it obvious that you understand them: "I see what you mean about X, but that's not the whole story... blah blah blah here's how I feel about Y." The first half of that sentence may seem extraneous to you (after all, you heard what they were saying), but it's important that they know you heard it.

You can also tell people to calm down. Humans are by nature proud, and sometimes once a person has worked themselves up into a fit over something it's difficult for them to be reasonable again, even if they know they were wrong. Here again, the solution is to head it off at the pass: rather than just becoming more logical and incisive, as you say, ask them to calm down before they become really, uncontrolably emotional. Speak softly and in a conciliatory tone of voice, even though your points themselves should not change. People who have pets understand that it really doesn't matter what you actually say to an animal; as long as you say it in a nice voice, you can calm them down. Humans are similar.

Your final option is, of course, simply to remove yourself from the situation. I find that many people do not even consider this an option, but it can be an excellent way of calming others down. It's hard to stay mad without an outlet for your anger.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 11:35 PM on November 23, 2005


You could try a tiny bit of venting to see if it escalates or deflates the problem, before reverting to calmness again. They probably just want to see a chink in your armour, so to speak.

"Look, I'm trying to talk to you calmly here! What do you actually want from me?! All you're giving me is semantic garbage!"

You probably can't get away without a tiny amount of yelling, or at least a more-than-usually tense or raised voice. Weirdly, doing this is actually a less agressive gesture than perfect calmness - a first step in any heated argument is acknowleding the other's anger.

As you say, you "fight back" with calmness and logic, which suggests it's a deliberate offensive retaliation, and that to some extent you know the more emotional arguer is going to have problems handling it.

It's probably more the detachment than anything else. If you're a tactile enough person and you do sincerely care about what they're saying, you could try briefly holding their forearm or shoulder briefly while explaining that you really don't want to fight them.

If none of those work, there's always
"Look, I can't talk to you when you're this angry", followed by the stride-from-the-room-with-optional-door-slam.

Melodramatic, sure, but at least you've communicated your desire to talk things over more rationally, and you've shown the other person you're emotionally affected by their anger to the point of not wanting to be in the same room as them.

You could also try talking to a psychologist - obviously they can't get too heated when talking to patients, but neither can they be so detached as to infuriate, so they may well have some useful hints to offer.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:49 PM on November 23, 2005


apparently their heat-of-the-moment insults are to be forgiven them but your cold and calculating ones are entirely different

Ooh, that's because you might say something that's actually true when you're cold and calculating. It's easy to let go of an insult you both know is bullshit, but hard to be forgiven for deliberately stepping on someone's real wounds.
posted by scarabic at 11:54 PM on November 23, 2005


Another sympathetic voice here... I don't have much advice because I haven't resolved the same issue in my life, but I have to say this: Suggesting that he freak out and get irrational seems like really bad advice. I wish more people would be calm and rational.

apparently their heat-of-the-moment insults are to be forgiven them but your cold and calculating ones are entirely different

A lot of the above discussion rings true to me, but especially this. I say you don't have to forgive anything you don't want to. Just because they're flipping out doesn't mean it's ok to resort to sharp, mean-spirited insults. This is totally unacceptable to me.
posted by knave at 12:07 AM on November 24, 2005


Using strong language without raising your voice might be a compromise you can live with, try that.
posted by krisjohn at 12:20 AM on November 24, 2005


Am I dating you? When I get angry with my boyfriend he acts like it's my problem, when in reality it's often something he's done. For example he recently flaked on a long standing arrangement to go on a trip in favour of going on a trip with his buddies. I had already made a few arrangements for our trip so I was naturally annoyed. OK, nothing was set in stone and he changed his mind, no big deal EXCEPT that he approached the "problem" with "I'm sorry you're upset but it's nothing to do with me, I hope you calm down soon" then ran for cover. Dude- I'm upset because you're being an inconsiderate ass! And yeah I'm angry but that doesn't mean you can patronise me MF'er! You don't get to set all the boundaries in this relationship by opting out whenever I do something you don't like! etc. etc.

If that sounds familiar you might want to consider that the upset-ness of the other party is not the major problem here and that you ability to remain un-reactive is not really giving you the higher moral ground if the inital disagreement is due to something that is a legitimate problem. In that case your unwillingness to engage in an arguement, which your SO may see as the only way to take some power back, comes across as an implacable desire to have your own way and dismissal of the little woman's feelings or wussiness and fear of criticism, depending on how you express it. Not to project or anything ;)
posted by fshgrl at 12:29 AM on November 24, 2005


afroblanco: However, their yelling puts me on the defensive, and I tend to fight back with the only tactics that I have - calmness and logic.

A lot of people will perceive this, and (probably rightly) interpret it as very very "passive aggressive" -- which is indeed infuriating. Expressing your feelings alongside your logic is not a bad thing.
posted by Rumple at 12:36 AM on November 24, 2005


You know the old saying, "Don't try to reason with an idiot"? That seems to be part of your problem. When the person that you are trying to communicate with gets to a certain point in their anger, the most rational arguments will not work, so don't even try. Defuse the situation by moving the conversation onto a less inflammatory topic or just cut the conversation short. Let them "win", at least for the time being. It is probably your subconscious method of elevating their anger which is not helping the situation.
posted by JJ86 at 1:24 AM on November 24, 2005


It's important to understand that in an argument (like the ones we're talking about here) 75% of it is about the experience of the argument and only the remaining 25% the issue which is specifically being contested. It's perfectly okay for you to be calm and rational—don't let people tell you that you have to be angry and irrational to be "normal"—but if your mode of interaction in a dispute is very different from the other person's, you both need to understand that in effect you're speaking in different languages. You're seeing hostility and frustration because your calmness and rationality are seen as dismissive of the importance or validity of how the other person is experiencing the argument.

It sounds like gooey, selfhelpspeak, but it boils down to whether you are "validating" the other person's feeling or "invalidating" them. By being calm and rational and talking very specifically and exclusively about the problem as if it were a puzzle to solve you're invalidating the other person's emotional stake in the matter. On the other hand, it is possible for you to continue to behave as you prefer to behave while, nevertheless, validating the other person's turmoil.

From what you've said, it looks like you're inclined to very much invalidate the other person's turmoil because you think it's bad and counterproductive. Well, that's how I feel and probably for the same reason: an irrationally angry and unpredictable parent.

The thing is, though, not all anger and turmoil is dysfunctional. If you eventually came to think of your angry parent as essentially nuts, at least when angry, then you well may think that everyone is nuts when they're angry. But that's not true. So I don't need to belabor the point. Just be aware that the other person's turmoil is likely valid and should be respected because it's not the case that all anger and conflict is pathological, and deal with how both of you feel right then as part of what's happening.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:06 AM on November 24, 2005


I grew up in a home similar to yours, afroblanca. And here's my take on the situation:

A basic philosophy I've cultivated: everyone is entitled to their anger (no matter how displaced it is). That includes nasty people like murderers, et.al. They are entitled to their anger. HOWEVER, no one is entitled to spew that anger on someone else.

I'm separating the reasons for one's anger from the active display of the anger (and its effect on other people).

In my house yelling and screaming was used as a way of engaging the other person --to bring them into the fray. Often, when I would walk away, the other person would yell even more in an effort to bring me back into the argument.

If I were to come back into that argument and start yelling it would justify their anger in the first place. Not yelling back is the healthiest thing I can do. It's loosening the Gordian Knot of reactive behavior.

Given that you cannot control anyone else but yourself, the best thing one can do is to acknowledge the other's feelings and try to de-escalate the "moment" so that some resolution can be reached.

In my best moments (when I am most centered) I might attempt to do is to say something like this:

I am sorry you feel this way... (fill in with details --you are acknowledging their anger). I feel differently... (again, fill in with details -- you are acknowledging your feelings, which shouldn't be underestimated here). Then offer a compromise or at least suggest that you both take a breather for a bit and then talk about how to solve the problem.

With all due respect to those who have commented here, I don't think that the "detachment" that some of you have noted is bad. Defusing a volatile situation is important (so no one gets hurt and so a resolution can be reached). I don't think a valid resolution can ever be obtained when two people are yelling at each other. Figuring out the psychology of afroblanca's disengagement from the yelling is less important than figuring out how to de-escalate the yelling so they can figure out how to fix whatever started the argument.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:30 AM on November 24, 2005 [1 favorite]


This is a problem with other people, not you. If the people you're spending time with really can't handle people who don't yell and scream and act like a two year old child, find better people to spend time with. Or at least learn not to care about their emotional reactions or about what they think. (That's what I ultimately had to do with my family, and it worked out well - eventually, they learned that those tactics wouldn't get them anywhere with me).

And those of you who think he should just yell back: what if people were "letting it out" by breaking things or punching holes in the wall? (I've seen both.) What if they were hitting each other? Must we always sink to the lowest common denominator in the name of our animal past? Please.
posted by gd779 at 5:55 AM on November 24, 2005


I am like you, afroblanca, in this respect. Some people do appreciate the emotional stability.

I had a fiery Italian friend and I learned that yelling back and throwing some unbreakable thing, like a roll of toilet paper, made her feel more comfortable, and dissipated the argument. Like she just wanted some kind of reaction.

However, as cool as I am, I am shocked at how pissed I can get if someone hits me.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:25 AM on November 24, 2005


Oh, and throw the unbreakable thing at the floor, not at her.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:28 AM on November 24, 2005


Funny, I was just called "infuriating" four days ago for the exact same reason.

They're just hating on good game. While they're shouting themselves red in the face, I'm partially mentally removed from the exchange, telling myself, "okay, this shouting will go on for about 90 more seconds, then I can go to my room..." I know the other person will be over it within one day, max.

If someone is arguing with you, they're going to find some reason to be pissed. You can stay rational, you can yell, it's not going to make a difference. The fight is about some other given issue, not on your "argument style." Picking at your calmness is just another "bad logic" tactic; if you become loud they'll just pick another thing about you for their ad hominem attack.

So stick to your ways. There's nothing wrong with you. (Plus, if you're known for staying calm, it makes a sudden outburst from you in the midst of an exchange quite effective.)
posted by neda at 8:28 AM on November 24, 2005


n+1 nowonmai. Bursting into tears is considered dirty pool by some, but it's an excellent exit strategy.

Finish him!
posted by Marnie at 9:12 AM on November 24, 2005


I can say with sincerity that Evariste's advice is some of the worst I've ever seen on Ask Metafilter.

I encourage you to continue to maintain your coolness in the face of unreasonable, irrational, or illogical venters. We need more rational people.

A couple of weeks ago I had an argument at a party with an American living in Switzerland who, despite having the same political views as I do, supports them with conspiracy theories, half truths, and mephitic mutterings. I was on such a calm cool trip that night, pointing out the weaknesses in his argument, that he asked me if "the propaganda of the Bush administration crawled up my ass and died." He thought my rationality was acquiescence to his enemy: nothing but total emotional commitment to my politics would do. He apologized the next day, but the fact remains: he looked like an ass and I didn't. I wonder how non-participating observers view your behavior when the arguments are raging.
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:17 AM on November 24, 2005


While they're shouting themselves red in the face, I'm partially mentally removed from the exchange, telling myself, "okay, this shouting will go on for about 90 more seconds, then I can go to my room..." I know the other person will be over it within one day, max.

That is the reaction of a child, not an adult. I would find that utterly infuriating and couldn't stay in a relationship with a person who just shut down mentally and emotionally when confronted with a problem. Sometimes you ARE responsible for the way the other person feels and their emotions: you've done something to them to provoke the reaction. Reacting angrily to an insult or other negative event is totally normal, freaking out and turning your brain off when you get such a reaction isn't! It's saying to the other person "I can do whatever I want but you can't react oh and by the way when I am unhappy with you? I won't say anything and you'll have to guess what you did wrong and how I'm feeling".

Being calm and collected is fine, repressing your anger just leads to trouble. It's understandable in a child or teenager as a way to control an uncontrollable situation but an adult should be able to express their own point of view and feelings, not merely dismiss the other person's and should be able to handle people getting mad at them and stick up for themselves.
posted by fshgrl at 10:45 AM on November 24, 2005


Hey Mo Nickels: I understand your feelings on the matter, but I feel differently.

I think Evariste and others here are on to something. Like Neda being called "infuriating," I was recently called "scary" for being dispassionate and calm when my g/f was flipping out on me. She worked herself up to such a frenzy that I was not just unwilling but unable to engage, and she was terrified at the resulting appearance. For the next 12 hours she acted like she'd been horribly abused.

Had I been able to at least validate her feelings in an emotional way, maybe we could have connected and gotten to the real problem.
posted by Tubes at 10:50 AM on November 24, 2005


As I said in that recent thread about anger, if you are already angry, anything that can be read as condescending or passive-aggressive is unlikely to make things better. My advice is that if they're really angry, just give them a blunt, brief response that you'll discuss it once they've calmed down, and leave to let them simmer down. When they've chilled out you can have the rational discussion, but if you try to do that while they're reacting emotionally, you're not going to get anywhere. They'll feel dumb later, but there's really no reason to make people feel dumb - I think it is a little passive-aggressive, and I've done it. I also have been on the other side of it. I think the thing is that if it's not an equal argument, if one person is angry and the other person is just defending themselves, or just doesn't feel strongly about it, it's very easy to be "the calm one". But if you're the angry one, you're not in a mindset to have analytical discourse...
posted by mdn at 10:55 AM on November 24, 2005


My advice is that if they're really angry, just give them a blunt, brief response that you'll discuss it once they've calmed down, and leave to let them simmer down.

That might be an appropriate way to treat a child, but not an equal partner in a relationship. You need to listen to their grievances. No-one likes being told off but it's generally not fatal.

People usually get angry for a valid reason and they want to talk about it now, not later. Brushing them off is only going to make them a lot more angry in the long run, as is deflecting conflict from the original issue (probably something you did) to their anger (not your fault!).
posted by fshgrl at 12:34 PM on November 24, 2005


OK, I am going to give you some advice that I think will be viewed as unusual or even mildly deranged by others on this board. My advice is premised on my opinion that argument as such is kind of a waste of time in the situations you are describing. The next time you find yourself getting into an argument, don't analyze but try to sidetrack the argument by saying:

"I hear what you're saying, but I need to ask you a question. Here is the question. Tell me what you want."

Some people are very bad at answering this question, and so in some cases you will have to sidestep the "answer" you receive by saying something like:

"Again, I hear what you're saying, but it doesn't answer the question I asked. Again, tell me what you want."

In my opinion, if you can actually get to the point where people are expressing what they want, you are on the road to solving the problem. Many people are not interested talking in order to express (or in some cases achieve!) what they want, but rather blaming another party for misconduct, etc. It is hard to seriously discuss some crucial issues until the requirement of people being honest about what they want is met.

Once you actually have reached the point of figuring out the complete description of what the person wants (oddly, this may require more repetition of the basic question than you might anticipate), you can often resolve problems. Of course, some people are rightly embarrassed by what they really want (e.g., "I want you to serve me in all things and think only of my interests") but perhaps this exercise will force them to a more realistic goal. Other people simply want to unload/shriek/etc., this question forces them to face up to that.

You will be amazed at the responses that you get if you learn to ask this question with some degree of respect and empathy. Once you get a complete picture of what the other person is willing to describe as their desire, a resolution often suggests itself.
posted by Mr. Justice at 12:51 PM on November 24, 2005


I am sorry you feel this way... (fill in with details --you are acknowledging their anger). I feel differently... (again, fill in with details -- you are acknowledging your feelings, which shouldn't be underestimated here).

I don't think this is a very wise script to follow.

You're sorry for the other person's feelings, but not your own. How about "I understand how you feel, and here's how I feel." No one has to be sorry for the way they feel.

And telling someone you're sorry they feel that way is one of two things: 1) lip service and utterly hollow 2) literally true, in the sense that jeez, you wish they felt some other way.

Not good.
posted by scarabic at 2:12 PM on November 24, 2005


The last place screaming should get a person what they want is their crib.

You are not the problem, unless as others have pointed out you are using the opportunity to be smug about how calm and rational you are.

A person in the grip of an emotional outburst is not rational.

Of course, keeping scorn off your face and out of your tone is absolutely necessary for defusing the situation.

Because if a screamer thinks for one moment you're not respecting them or their tirade, they'll really cut loose.
posted by Crosius at 2:14 PM on November 24, 2005


"I hear what you're saying, but I need to ask you a question. Here is the question. Tell me what you want."

This is interesting and certainly worth a try. Sometimes there isn't a ready, practical "fix" or "task" that can resolve interpersonal issues, however. Emotional needs are hard to put into terms like: "here's what you should do."

This practical-minded approach is pretty stereotypically male. Cut to the chase and give me the answer. How do I fix it? If you're really lucky and the person who's arguing with you is very articulate, you might get some interesting answers.

"What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to work on being more emotionally invested in this relationship and to be more demonstrative with your feelings."

It's a fair answer, and yet hardly the "action item" you might be hoping for.
posted by scarabic at 2:16 PM on November 24, 2005


Mrs. Justice's advice is effective and appropriate for any kind of customer service confrontation. It might be pretty effective in more personal arguments, but it does seem a little too utilitarian for me. I really think that what I said earlier and what some other have said is the key to this whole thing: you don't have to yell back or anything, but you do have to deal with the person's anger as part of what's going on. Otherwise you're explicitly dismissing how they feel, which is often the most important thing to that person at that moment.

Actually, upon a bit of reflection, even in a customer service environment, while the "what do you want me to do" question is extremely helpful and effective, you really still do need to somehow validate (or otherwise make it clear that you are aware of and empathize with) the person's anger. Really, take my word on this for customer service as I'm exceptionally good at dealing with angry customers.
  1. Show that you're aware that the person's very upset and that this signals to you that this matter is important to that person. Show that you're taking them seriously. Do not be condescending about doing this.
  2. Once you've gotten the "this is really important to you right now and you're very upset" phase out of the way, then ask them what they want to have happen to solve the problem that's making them upset.
  3. Respond to them with how what they want affects you, your ability or desire to meet their expectations, allow yourself to get angry or upset if you are feeling that. Express it to them without attacking them.

posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:41 PM on November 24, 2005


I did not grow up around yelling types for the most part, and I don't encounter irrational anger very often. Because it's so foreign to me, it completely freaks me out. I would never try to engage someone who was yelling at me irrationally.

On the rare occasions when people I know try to engage me in yelling and shouting arguments, I tend to tell them that they're scaring me and not making any sense, and that I can't deal with them when they're like this. Then I leave, or I ask them to leave. I'm not someone who does this in a logical or emotionless way, though. Generally, you can hear the fear in my voice.

I can usually avoid getting to that point with my more emotional friends with a little bit of empathy. Most fights don't start fully escalated. You have to show emotion when they're starting to pick the fight, show that you care about the problem, don't consider yourself comlpetely blameless, and want to solve this thing. If that doesn't diffuse things, then it's time to get out.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:40 PM on November 24, 2005 [1 favorite]


That might be an appropriate way to treat a child, but not an equal partner in a relationship. You need to listen to their grievances. No-one likes being told off but it's generally not fatal.

well, I said if they're really angry - if they are acting like a child, throwing a tantrum essentially - which as I said in that previous thread, I myself have done. But the yelling back & forth generally doesn't do anything, and the one-person-calm, one-person-angry dynamic is really uneven & basically feels like a power play, so if they're out of control, I do think it's best to let them cool off before really talking it out. If someone's calm demeanor is making the person more angry, that to me sounds like how I used to feel when I would interpret someone as not being emotionally invested in the issue, but they were just trying to be reasonable - the problem was, if I was really angry, their cool-headedness seemed condescending and dismissive. If we wanted to have a rational discussion, it was best to wait until I'd calmed down. Venting anger might feel good, but I'm not sure it ultimately does angy good. But, as I also said in the earlier thread, I think it depends a lot on the temperment of the involved parties, etc.
posted by mdn at 4:16 PM on November 24, 2005


It seems to me that all of you who are advocating some version of yelling back or escalating the um, heated discussion have some anger management issues. How do you expect to get anything done if you're screaming at people? For folks like me and afroblanco and some of the others in this thread, being screamed at is the same as being attacked and as for me, I withdraw until the verbal assault stops. Then I'm usually too battered to deal with it in a rational manner, so I continue to withdraw until I can get my wounded feelings under control. Then comes the cool, calm, rational self, who secretly has hateful feelings toward the screamer, which take me quite a while to dissipate. So again, I ask screamers, just what are you accomplishing by being so aggresive? All you're telling me is that it's all about you and you could give a heck about engaging in a rational discussion that could fix the problem.
posted by Lynsey at 10:10 PM on November 24, 2005


Then comes the cool, calm, rational self, who secretly has hateful feelings toward the screamer, which take me quite a while to dissipate.

I don't think those hateful feelings are quite as secret as you think- I imagine it's pretty obvious. You say your "secret" hateful feelings take a long time to dissipate? Maybe that's because you resent the fact that you never get your say in the arguement in the first place.

It's not about anger management it's about honesty and sticking up for yourself as well as doing the other person the courtesy of not lying through your teeth saying "I'm calm", "I'm not mad at you", "I'm not upset" when you are. People are smart- they know you're not telling the truth.

You feel like the other person is not giving you a chance to discuss the problem by getting angry? Well they probably feel you are not giving them the chance to discuss it by clamming up and being dishonest about how you feel.
posted by fshgrl at 11:19 PM on November 24, 2005


They're just hating on good game. While they're shouting themselves red in the face, I'm partially mentally removed from the exchange, telling myself, "okay, this shouting will go on for about 90 more seconds, then I can go to my room..."

This is probably the most unhealthy description possible of what afroblanca is getting at. This sort of smug non-response might be alright when fighting with a parent as a child (it's a shock to discover the technique, a shock to discover that in the face of calmness a violent parent can suddenly become ridiculous instead of frightening), but this is only reasonable behavior within a hierarchy in which you are at the bottom (and then probably only fair behavior when the other's position of power is truly being abused). The claim to moral superiority this projects is simply not useful within a relationship between equals. Transforming the fight into a matter of who is a better person is bound to end badly.

Off the cuff a bit:
I don't think it makes sense to hyper-rationally ask outright "Yes...but what is it you want" as suggested above, but maybe make figuring that out your goal, no matter how you achieve it. Struggle to figure out what s/he wants, and if that struggle ends up frustrating you, let that frustration show. If cold rationality is coming off as smug, anger (and certainly violence) is obviously not the only alternative response. Try frustration, sadness, anything you're feeling. Because if someone you care about it yelling at you, you're certainly feeling things, and there's a good chance that your version of calm and collected is attempting to deny that fact. It's good that you can keep yourself from getting unreasonably angry, but don't let your technique for doing so make you unreasonably cold.


[Appended, after the spellcheck reminds me yet again that "alright" is not a word:
USAGE NOTE Despite the appearance of the form alright in works of such well-known writers as Langston Hughes and James Joyce, the single word spelling has never been accepted as standard. This is peculiar, since similar fusions such as already and altogether have never raised any objections. The difference may lie in the fact that already and altogether became single words back in the Middle Ages, whereas alright has only been around for a little more than a century and was called out by language critics as a misspelling. Consequently, one who uses alright, especially in formal writing, runs the risk that readers may view it as an error or as the willful breaking of convention.]

posted by nobody at 11:20 PM on November 24, 2005


Struggle to figure out what s/he wants, and if that struggle ends up frustrating you, let that frustration show. If cold rationality is coming off as smug, anger (and certainly violence) is obviously not the only alternative response. Try frustration, sadness, anything you're feeling. Because if someone you care about it yelling at you, you're certainly feeling things, and there's a good chance that your version of calm and collected is attempting to deny that fact. It's good that you can keep yourself from getting unreasonably angry, but don't let your technique for doing so make you unreasonably cold.

I have to say that I feel this is the best advice in this thread.
posted by Stauf at 11:42 PM on November 24, 2005


How about "I understand how you feel, and here's how I feel." No one has to be sorry for the way they feel.

That's even better, scarabic. I agree.

This reminds me of something that happened soon after my wife and I married. When I would relay a story to her about something bad/sad that happened to me she would always begin her remarks with "I'm sorry..."

At first, I didn't understand why she would say that as the reason I was upset had nothing to do with her. What I've come to realize now is that she is commiserating with me, not apologizing.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:54 AM on November 25, 2005


It seems to me that all of you who are advocating some version of yelling back or escalating the um, heated discussion have some anger management issues. How do you expect to get anything done if you're screaming at people?

This conversation has gone off the end with noise. It has become very polarized. People keep saying to ignore those who've told afroblance to freak out, get mad, yell also, and lash out. Who, exactly, advocated that?

I think everyone, even those here, like me, who are prone to outbursts, can appreciate a calm person who doesn't engage in loud, angry fights. That's a good thing. The "infuriating" component of afroblanca's situation, as has been pointed out repeatedly, is NOT that he, himself does not get angry and yell. The question is whether or not his "cool logic" dismisses the other party's feelings.

Can we stop pretending that the question is whether or not afroblanca should yell and throw things? I don't think anybody's saying that.
posted by scarabic at 12:30 PM on November 25, 2005


Thank you all for your help.

Of everyone here, I think that Lynsey stated my viewpoint most accurately. When I'm yelled at, I feel like I'm being attacked. I really wish that people didn't see yelling as an acceptable mode of interaction.

fshgrl, I appreciate your contributions. You're right, it is important to actually listen to the other person. If I am genuinely wrong in an argument, I want to own up to it. There's no worse feeling then looking back on a bitter argument and thinking, "damn, I was wrong." However, listening alone won't diffuse the situation. I am listening to the other person, but my calmness is upsetting them, it doesn't matter how much I'm listening. They're still yelling.

I don't think I'm going to go for the "act like an idiot" angle. Not quite ready to become what I hate. I'll try some other stuff first.

I think I have an approach, though.

The first challenge for me will always be to not feel attacked. When I feel attacked, all I can do is think about the holes in the other person's logic, and how I can effectively point them out. As mdn has said, when people are irrational and yelling, they are in no mood for rational discussions.

The second challenge will be in letting people know that I genuinely care. The solution to this will probably be different for every situation. Some creativity (and a little drama) may be necessary, but if my object is to validate their feelings, I'm sure that there is probably always a way to do this.

Once they've calmed down, it will be necessary to discuss the problem some. This is toughest when the other person is actually in the wrong - you don't want to beat them over the head with it, but you don't want to be a doormat either. Probably the best thing to do here is to discuss only what is necessary, mostly addressing the emotional side of the situation. Later, once everyone has cooled off, the situation can be discussed more rationally.

Thanks to everybody who participated in this thread. I don't feel as alone in this anymore.
posted by afroblanca at 1:42 PM on November 25, 2005


The first challenge for me will always be to not feel attacked. When I feel attacked, all I can do is think about the holes in the other person's logic, and how I can effectively point them out.

That's really the crux of it. If you're with someone who is regularly attacking you verbally- that's a problem and there's no good way to react to that (besides leaving). If you're with someone who has told you 4 million times to put gas in her car after you borrow it and you just forget for the four hundred million and first time and it's 6am and she's going to be late for work? not a good time to get defensive. Two very extreme examples but you need to not be so freaked out by people getting angry that you can't tell situation A from situation B and end up confused and reacting inappropriately. Which is hard if you were raised in a house where normal emotions did not hold sway.

I can get really pissed off about stuff and I will confront people but that's mainly because I like the air to be clear at all times and prefer that resentments don't linger so that I can have a good relationship with everyone. If I was the one who was being made late for work and I decided to try and be nice and say it was no big deal when it was I'd probably spend all day brooding over what a jerk my BF was and coming up with elaborate revenge fantasies. If I yell at him, then I forget about it by lunchtime probably and can jokingly "punish" him by making him cook me dinner or something, giving him a chance to apologise and we can forget all about it.
posted by fshgrl at 9:52 PM on November 25, 2005


Not trying to say I know all about this topic btw, but it's something I've been through several times romantically and professionally. My parents are Mrs Temper and Mr Passive Aggressive so they have had some really pointless fights over the years too.
posted by fshgrl at 9:55 PM on November 25, 2005


I gotta chime in here to agree with a great deal of what others have been saying. Sounds like you are angry when this happens and it shows, but you just show it differently. It sounds like you have a reason to be angry.

Many have suggested ways to change your approach. You must be careful not to accidently come across as giving mixed messages when you do this, or you will seem manipulative. Nevertheless, if you didn't consider that you have a problem, you wouldn't be writing here.

And, as the 12-steppers say; If you keep doing what you've been doing, you're going to keep getting what you've been getting.

Because of this, I do recommend trying on a number of different personas- Change the input and see what it does to the output. The results just might surprise you.

For instance, as a thought-experiment, consider what will happen when you kick a small rock (yes, you are wearing boots). You can pretty well calculate what is going to happen to that rock- where it will go, how far, etc. Now don't try this at home (!!!), but imagine that instead of it being a rock, you are kicking a strange dog. Suddenly you're slide-rule doesn't help much- too many variables.

Back to the real world- Just realize that you're going to do something that does not come naturally and maintain some internal respect for the process and the people you are doing this with.

For instance, I also had difficulty dealing with loud, angry people, but responded differently than you. I was given the advice, when other people are getting angry, become confused. So I acted confused and just a bit off target. It sounds horribly manipulative, but what I had not realized was that my previous defensiveness made it difficult for people to communicate with me and I really didn't know where they were coming from. I gave them the opportunity to communicate with me in my expressed confusion, and I did, in fact learn something from them, easing tensions. I had been confused but didn't realize it. Acting confused allowed for positive resolution.

In other situations, you might try purposefully saying something confusing, or uncharacteristically insulting or, or, or...

Don't kick anyone, but just say or do something very different than you'd normally do. Mind you, the wrong thing might get you decked. In the wrong bar, it might get you shot. But really, under most circumstances, probably not; you'll probably learn something about people.


Not Medical Advice. Your Mileage May Vary.
For entertainment purposes only.
Good Luck.
posted by INFOHAZARD at 8:08 AM on November 26, 2005


Oh, yeah- THE book on this topic has been in print continuously for nearly 40 years:

Pragmatics of Human Communication

By Watzlawick, et.al.
W.W. Norton, 1967
posted by INFOHAZARD at 11:18 AM on November 27, 2005


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