What happens when clients get angry and how you can best manage it?
Niki Tudge Copyright 2015. An excerpt from People Training Skills for Pet Professionals – Your essential guide to engaging, educating and empowering your human clients
Anger can be an incredibly damaging force that can leave professional relationships floundering in its wake if it is not managed properly. Anger is a natural emotion that stems from a perceived threat or loss. Clients can become angry if they feel threatened, physically or otherwise, e.g. if we challenge their existing ideas, thoughts or actions regarding how they care for and train their pets.
Anger affects the body, mind, emotions and behavior (see Table 3-3). Like all behaviors we can describe anger in terms of its dimensions, such as intensity, frequency, duration and latency, and we can define its threshold. Generally, expressed anger follows a predictable pattern. If you can understand the cycle, it can help you control both your own emotions and those of others.
Signs of Anger
What follows is the crisis phase where the body is on full alert and prepared to take action. During this phase clients will no longer be rational and logical discussion becomes impossible. From here, the next part of the cycle is the recovery phase. The client’s anger is now spent and you will see a steady return to normal behavior. During this phase you may be the trigger for more anger if you intervene inappropriately.
When clients appear depressed they are, appropriately, in the depression phase. This marks the return to their normal state. Physically, they will have below normal vital signs, e.g. heart rate. This is so the body can regain equilibrium. Clients should now have full use of their faculties and may also express guilt and regret.
In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.
- Benjamin Franklin
One of the primary functions of the human brain is to keep us safe. Involuntary reactions, such as blinking when an object comes too close to one’s face or instinctively pulling one’s hand away from a fire, are a large part of what kept prehistoric man alive. When we are presented with a dangerous situation, instinct dictates what we do. The Fight or Flight theory was developed by Walter Cannon in 1915 and refers specifically to how humans and animals react to perceived threats. It underscores how anger is a natural response and that there is no morality to it. It also reminds us of our need to stay in control. We can no longer be rational if we are angry. Instead our instincts will lead us to aggressive and hyper vigilant behavior, all of which are incompatible to a rational and deliberate response.
Because anger is aggravated by a feeling of victimization and helplessness, it may be useful to know that there are three options available when dealing with it. You can alter, avoid or accept it. Clients are not victims of the situation. They have the option of taking a deliberate and well-thought out response to an anger-provoking situation, as do you. If a client gets angry, it can feel overwhelming and trigger intense reactions. Here are some tips on how to deal with anger more effectively. They fall into one of the three categories of alter, accept or avoid:
- Respectfully ask others to change their behavior and be willing to do the same.
- You cannot exert control over other people’s thoughts, feelings and behavior. But you can ask then to change.
- Analyze the way you view and react to certain situations and, if necessary, change how your respond.
- Do not use irrational thoughts to govern how you react.
- You can purposefully change the way you respond to things that you would identify as your hot buttons. Anger usually creates anger.
- Steer clear of people who make you upset.
- If your own anger is triggered by interactions with difficult people, then consider avoiding such people.
- One of the advantages of being aware of your hot buttons is that it you can structure your day so you can avoid them.
- Remove yourself from a stressful situation immediately.
- Immediately remove yourself from a situation that might cause your anger to escalate.
One of the delicate aspects of handling a client’s anger is knowing how to react without making the situation worse. An understanding of the energy curve can help here (see Figure below). The energy curve describes the typical pattern present in an angry reaction. It also details how reactions progress and how one might appropriately respond at each stage.
The baseline of the energy curve is normal rational behavior. At this point you can still have a reasonable discussion. Once an angry reaction has kicked in, the rational mind is no longer in control. You cannot reason with somebody who is getting angry. Anger builds momentum. This is known as the take-off point. How intense the anger gets will depend on the individual. Some people restrict themselves to angry facial expressions while others will raise their voices and even progress to physical violence. This is definitely not the time to try to reason with somebody.
Eventually the anger stops gaining momentum and turns a corner. This is the cooling down stage where the person generally runs out of energy and, unless provoked, will begin to calm down. This is not the time to start a conversation or try to reason with them. You can offer supportive behavior but do not try to resolve the issue that triggered the anger. Only when the person is back to a rational state of mind should you start talking about the problem.
In the meantime, there are a few strategies you can employ to de-escalate the anger and expedite the cooling down process. For the most part, an angry person just wants the opportunity to explain how they feel and have their feelings acknowledged. If you are genuinely listening to them, it can help reduce their anger. Be sure to create a comfortable distance between you as, if you are sitting too close, they may feel stifled. You can guide clients towards taking back some control of the situation by offering them some choices that may help solve the problem. Ask if they are comfortable with you talking to them. Then ask what they think you could do to rectify the situation. Invite them to criticize you and ask what has upset them so you can understand what went wrong.
If you can find a way to agree with your clients then do so. You can always agree to them having expressed their opinion. This can often de-escalate the situation. Continue to emphasize your willingness to help. It sometimes helps to tell clients you are willing to listen, but would appreciate it if they could calm down first. Remember, however, that not all angry reactions can be managed. There may be situations where you have to politely back away or reschedule another meeting. If at any point in time you feel intimidated or threatened, then your own personal safety must be your top priority.