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How Active Listening and Empathy Can Help Calm an Angry Person Down

When we are faced with someone who seems irrational in his or her anger, often we become defensive – even when we know that they are not angry with us. But, when we get angry, we become more likely to help the situation to escalate. And that makes us less likely to come to resolution

Every day we come across people who are upset. People get frustrated by a number of situations – sometimes it’s about traffic, other times it’s because their opinions aren’t being heard at work.

When we are faced with someone who seems irrational in his or her anger, often we become defensive – even when we know that they are not angry with us. But, when we get angry, we become more likely to help the situation to escalate. And that makes us less likely to come to resolution.

To be sure that we are not escalating a situation unknowingly, it’s a good idea to practice active listening.

What is active listening exactly? It’s a way of paying attention to what the other person doesn’t say, not just what is said. It’s a way of listening in which you do not let yourself get tangled up in your own emotions.

More importantly, it’s a way of listening with a targeted curiosity. When we listen to learn the whys of the situation we are better able to understand what is going on.

But hearing the whys does not mean asking questions like “Why did you do that?” It doesn’t mean asking “Why didn’t you talk to me about this before?” Directly asking a question beginning with the word why can make the person you’re talking to defensive. When a person is already angry adding defensiveness to the conversation will only slow down the progress you are trying to make.

Instead of why, focus your questions around the themes of ‘what’ or ‘was there a reason.’ If you need to probe further to get answers to your questions, keep the other person focused by repeating key phrases that they have already used.

For example, if the person you are talking with says “We were just talking. But I found out that because we talked she totally gave my boss the wrong idea and undermined my promotion,” you’re going to have questions. Ask “How did she undermine your promotion?” Ask “What did she say that gave your boss the wrong idea?”

By asking the right questions, you are more likely to get the other person to open up, and that means that you’ll be able to better understand the situation.

But once you understand what’s going on, how do you convey that you are on the same page? Show the person empathy; let him or her know that you understand what they are experiencing.

The key to empathy is letting the other person know that you understand and can put yourself in their position. Make sure that your responses take him or her into consideration. Keep your tone even. Make sure that he or she has enough time to respond to your questions without interruption.

In addition to those empathy dos, make sure you avoid these empathy don’ts:

  • Do not be condescending.
  • Do not pretend to understand something that doesn’t make sense to you.
  • Do not give unsolicited advice.
  • Do not respond with a cliché that dismisses how the person feels.
  • Do not jump to conclusions.

Active and empathic listening is a fantastic way to understand a situation from someone else’s perspective. When you are talking with someone who is upset or agitated, you need to make sure that you approach them in a way that isn’t going to create more tension.

In order to show the person you are talking with that you understand, you need to show them that you are hearing what they are saying and that you are trying to learn what’s upset them – and help them work out a solution.

But helping someone to come to terms with their situation does not mean telling them how you would deal with it. Hearing them out and understanding what’s going on will help them to calm themselves down and work the situation out for themselves. Your role as an active listener is to help the person you are talking with to recognize the source of his or her frustration. In that, you will be able to help be a part of the solution

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