Detach from someone else's anger... how-to
January 24, 2023 2:49 PM   Subscribe

What strategies have you used, in similar roles past or present, to de-escalate internal anger when someone is upset at you over something you told them that they don't want to hear?

My workplace is service-oriented. Many of you will know all about the trials and travails of this type of environment. The one I am in, has fairly laid-back customers, but some are more, erm, aggressive, than I had experienced in previous positions. It isn't outright condescension or hostility, as it might be in more upscale places. The place where I am employed, tends to cater to more a down-to-earth group. I have worked at other places with a similar demographic. In practice that means I am used to meeting their needs from a low-affect standpoint. What I mean is that, to a point, I am non-reactive to anger, snide comments etc.

This used to be sufficient in previous work environments, but the key difference here is that I am often by myself, with backup only available remotely. This means there is nobody to run interference, as it were, a strategy which sometimes helps to calm people down. When it is just one person in front of them, disgruntled people sometimes really zero in and let you know just what they think of your heinous rule-pushing and other (in their eyes) crimes.

I emphasize to a point, because, in this position, I have realized that there are limits to my non-reactivity. I used to pride myself on my calm deportment; but that was before I experienced people who are next-level at pushing my particular buttons, or just in a better position to be pushing them.

Which brings me to my question: what strategies have you used, in similar roles past or present, to de-escalate internal anger when someone is being (subjectively) obsteperous? (Please note, "just quit" is not an answer I am looking for here.)

What happens is that, for example, I frequently have to explain policy to people who really don't want to hear it. There is no logical reason for me to get personally upset when they get upset at me, because it isn't about me. It is about people not hearing the answer they want and responding according to their particular personalities and inclinations. And some respond politely. Others... don't.

Please let me know how you detach from these situations so that you are not upset and anxious. I know it can be done as I have seen others do it. I get angry with myself for reacting so vociferously to people who really do not care one whit about me. I want to raise my level of detachment, as it were, not in a cold way, just to not be so affected when a grown adult throws a tantrum. As it is, it sets my anxiety blaring like a klaxon announcing that intruders have entered the mother ship. Yes, I am medicated and therapized. It is real-life support (well, internet-stranger support, anyway) that I am seeking.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris to Work & Money (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in a profession where I'm often seen as the personification of a larger entity, and having to represent that entity to individual humans and then bear the brunt of human emotions. Repeating over and over inside my own head that "they're not angry with me, they're angry with XYZ, and they don't even see me" works to a certain extent.

But, for those moments when it doesn't, I've found that it helps me to imagine that I am actually inside a large robot-type machine, and the person in front of me is throwing eggs or crap or whatever onto the machine, but I am safe inside. When it's over, I visualize myself washing off the machine.

It's silly, but it works.
posted by rpfields at 3:15 PM on January 24 [10 favorites]

On a more serious note, other times I try to observe the situation as dispassionately as I can, and actually narrate what's going on to myself, e.g. "this person appears angry. This person is expressing distress about the fact that they are not going to get [whatever]. This person is raising their voice. They are upset because this answer is going to cause them difficulties with [whatever]" Etc.

I've found this technique can really help me avoid getting caught up arguing with the person at least some of the time, but--and this leads me to my other point--sometimes you will not be able to stop yourself from reacting and that is also okay. You are human and sometimes these things will bug you more than other times. Don't forget to cut yourself some slack in all this.
posted by rpfields at 3:23 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]

I find I have to keep myself tuned into how hard it is to be a customer so that I can react with empathy instead of anxiety/anger. I discovered it accidentally by trying to get something done on my lunch break one day. I went into a store and there were so many friction points to getting something done. Loud music, the staff couldn't hear me through my mask, I couldn't find what I was looking for, the line was long and time was short. When I went back to work it was so much easier to feel from a customer's perspective that there is so much friction when it comes to getting their goals met. I didn't have to consciously maintain calm or file away anger - it was just replaced with an understanding that made me feel a little more tenderly towards them, more like the way I feel when I see a child melting down.
posted by xo at 4:11 PM on January 24 [9 favorites]

I get angry with myself for reacting so vociferously to people who really do not care one whit about me.

I doubt this approach will help you. It is often said that you can't just shove emotions down or force yourself not to have them. Often this makes them worse. You may be able to stop them from arising in the first place, or deal with them more constructively.
posted by lookoutbelow at 4:20 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

I got this from metafilter: assume they are an alien from outer space, with no clue of how to behave but to mimic other people. They are cargo culti-ing emotions, but don't actually know how to appropriately behave towards you. They need to get utter neutrality from you to reset their filters. Give them that.
posted by Dashy at 4:24 PM on January 24

Still working on this myself (so hoping to pick up some tips from the comments) but l do sometimes let myself get mad/frustrated (not in the moment, but after).

In the moment, I aggressively assume positive intent. In reality, this doesn't always stop me from becoming anxious or upset, but it does help me come down from it more quickly, because part of assuming positive intent is being empathetic, and dialing into my empathy helps me detach, and demonstrating that empathy sometimes helps the other person dial it down a notch too.

Also, when it doesn't work? I am working on letting it go. Some people are just assholes.
posted by sm1tten at 5:11 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

I negotiate with people who hate my answers, and therefore me, for a living. I have to be professional; they don’t. It’s hard; even if you understand it’s not actually about you, it doesn’t feel good to be a receptacle, and it is sometimes so hard not to match their energy. A few tools in my arsenal:

-I literally imitate calm detached people. The way Obama would take 3-5 seconds and say “well, look” then go into his response with a kind of light humor was an instructive example for me. Even if I’m only pretending, the pause and calm tone of voice and smile have a kind of “fake it til you make it” way of actually changing my reactions over time.

-Anyone who is acting like a baby gets pictured as an adult-faced infant in a foolish bonnet with a stupid rattle. They screw up their red lil face and whine at me and shake their rattle in their shitty baby fists. Lol. I’m not arguing with a shitty baby.

-When I need to bite my tongue for real, I do that thing where I imagine everything I’m saying on the front page of the news/shown to my boss/repeated every time my name comes up with no way to defend myself. Pretty sobering.

-Reminding myself I’m not powerless. Losing your temper is for people who have no control and no options. But you actually do have the leverage in the situation—they can shake their rattle all they want but at the end of the day you have the final say.

-I remember the times I have lost it, how that never once made me feel any better or resolved the situation.

-Controlled venting with a trusted person, ideally not from the same workplace (not ruminating or wallowing, but just enough bitching to get it off your chest.)
posted by kapers at 9:18 PM on January 24 [13 favorites]

What's worked for me in a similar situation is thinking that I'm just collecting stories to tell later. The worse the behavior, the better the story, so when someone really goes over the line, I just imagine myself telling a friend about it later.

This other one is a little petty but here it is: when someone is angry, the thing that they hate the most is usually is if you're extremely calm and pleasant and don't mirror their affect at all. So sometimes it helps to think that by smiling and staying chill you're actually fucking with them a little. Like I said, petty, but it's worked for me.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:46 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]

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