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Listening to Anger


Techniques Listening > Listening to Anger

Don't defend | Don't advise | Don't just listen | Don't over-sympathize | What they want | Know that it is not you | Help them draw the sting | Don't blindly follow this advice | See also


Sometimes when people are talking with you they are frustrated or angry about something. This creates and builds internal tension as they think about the gap between what is and what they think should be. This pressure drives them to expel the discomfort, to vent their feelings, having a rant at whoever will listen.

Don't defend

When people rant at us, a natural response is to defend ourselves (or just leave) in a fight-or-flight reaction. We experience their anger and feel uncomfortable. Perhaps because of their words we feel they are angry at us. Maybe we just find it difficult to cope with our own negative feelings and want them to stop.

But if we respond critically, the situation may turn into an argument that does more harm than good. They may use your rising anger to facilitate and legitimate their continued expulsion of hurt, which may make them feel better about the original situation but then worse again as your relationship with them suffers. They may alternatively realize you are unable to listen to them and retreat, stopping their rant and still feeling bad.

Don't advise

Another response is to offer advice. This can be defensive as we deflect attention back onto the other person. It may be well-intentioned yet still ineffective as the person is not ready for advice as they are too full of emotion to stop and listen calmly.

We go into parent mode as we tell them what they should do. Or we become friendly problem solvers, treating their situation as a puzzle that needs fixing. However, even if we ask probing or Socratic questions, this can still just make matters worse and they may turn their anger directly on us, perhaps pushing us into the defending trap.

Don't just listen

When a person is ranting, they are not seeking advice. They just want to feel better by pushing out their bad feelings. When we realize this we may conclude they just want us to listen, so we do.

But sitting and silently listening is not enough. They are trying to push out bad feelings, not make an eloquent speech. While just listening can help, there are better things to do than just sitting there and saying nothing.

Don't over-sympathize

A further response that we may offer is to take their part, agreeing they are right and joining them in righteous indignation. While this may help, it can also intensify and prolong their feelings of anger. Now, having a partner, the annoyance becomes a cause which is fired by continuing high emotion.

What they want

First of all they want to be recognized and their hurt acknowledged. They want you to accept what they say without criticism.

Then they want to know that they are justified in their anger. That they are not personally bad for feeling this way. That it normal for them to be frustrated at the situation in which they find themselves.

They may also appreciate your help in getting out those feelings. When we are in an emotional state, we are not good at understanding how to expel the discomfort and feel better.

Know that it is not you

The first step of helping is to realize that their frustrations are theirs. Even if they are projecting anger directly at you, the anger is always theirs. It is also very likely that you are not the problem. You just happen to be there and you may feel the sharpness of their tongue, but it is important not to feel you are personally being blamed, nor that it is somehow all your fault.

When you know that it is not you, then you have no need to defend and can place your energies in helping the other person. If it really is you, then a simply apology may be appropriate along with the effective listening described here.

 Help them draw the sting

When a bee stings you and leaves the barb in your skin, you need someone to help carefully draw out that sting. It is similar with frustration and anger, where the drawing of the sting can be done with facilitative questions that bleed out the emotion, leaving the person calmer and relieved.

There is an optimal rate at which to release painful emotion. Too fast and the pain will be unbearable, sending them into shock. Too slow and the pain will be drawn out, prolonging the agony and maybe never really curing the problem.

A good early question is to ask what it is that is frustrating them. If they answer vaguely, ask about what frustrates them most. This should help them focus on the cause of their feelings. It is a non-judgemental question that avoids making them want to defend themselves.

Then asking about what is making them angry goes to deeper emotions, drawing out stronger feelings. Note the difference between 'What is making you angry?' and 'Why are you angry?' Asking 'what' allows them to keep attention outside them, on other people and situations. Asking 'why' pushes attention inside them, seeking what it is about them that leads them to anger. This is a deeper challenge for which they may not be ready.

You can see the anger coming out through the language they use. Notice absolute words like 'never' and 'always'. Hear emotion in their voices and emotive words like 'failed' and 'again'.

When the anger has subsided, ask what is worrying them. This often gets to the heart of the matter as it is our inner anxieties that lead to external frustration and anger.

Don't blindly follow this advice

While there is clear advice here on how to handle anger, the 'don'ts' above are not commands and there are times when all of them can be appropriate, such as:

  • When their anger at you is severe, your defending yourself may make them realize they are over-doing it and be shocked into rethinking their whole situation.
  • When they are not lost in the emotion, advice may be heard and appreciated.
  • When they are clear about what they want to say, just quiet listening may be enough.
  • When they are sad, sympathy can make them feel better.

The skill of listening to anger is knowing what will work best right now. This comes from trying different approaches and finding what works for you in different situations. When doing this, take note of the suggestions here, being cautious of your own needs getting in the way and knowing that what seems right may not always be the best way.

See also

Counseling, Anger, Stress, Argument


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