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One of the most difficult challenges of day-to-day life is finding effective ways to cope with the angry and aggressive people we are all occasionally confronted with. Whether directed at us by a loved one or a total stranger, aggressive behavior can catch us off guard and may lead to defensive or counter-aggressive reactions which only make the situation worse.

Stay calm and non-defensive

Your most valuable asset in dealing with someone who is potentially out of control is to be totally in control yourself. Staying calm provides the best opportunity to keep the situation from escalating. To do so requires accepting aggressive people as they are, even if you do not like them and wish they would go away. Insisting that demanding, condescending or verbally abusive people should not be the way they are is akin to saying that weather that we do not like should be different. It is much more fruitful to begin with a realistic view of others, and to acknowledge that allowing yourself to get upset will just make things more difficult. Take a deep breath, count to 10 and recognize you will have to be persistent and probably do more than your share of the work in order to calm down an agitated individual.

Know what gets to you

When others become verbally abusive, they often have a uncanny ability to identify and exploit our weaknesses. It is essential to recognize your own "triggers" or "hotspots", and the have effective ways of maintaining control when situations start to get to you. Remind yourself there are many reasons why people make hurtful comments, and try not to take it personally even when they are pointedly directed at you. If you keep your cool and do not let someone else's behavior control the way you feel, chances are you will walk away from the situation feeling good about yourself.

Remain task-oriented

When dealing with aggression, do not get sidetracked by other's accusations or attempts to manipulate you. Identify what your most important goals are in the situation, and do not lose sight of what you are hoping to accomplish. Acknowledge that in every conflict situation there are two points of view, and try to fully understand what the other person thinks, feels and wants.

Enlist the person's help

When dealing with hostile or aggressive people, try to make them a ally by enlisting their help in resolving the situation. Let them know that they are an important part of the solution and reinforce this notion by asking for their ideas. Example: "I know you are angry and you have a right to be, but let's see if we can figure out a way to resolve this problem".


One of the most useful strategies in controlling the escalation of anger and aggression is the time-out technique. If the situation is getting out of hand or if you are having a difficult time controlling your own feelings, disengage. A cooling off period enables people to be more objective and to change their mind or make concessions without feeling they have lost face. Offering to get back together when things have settled down helps to insure that the disengagement will not be viewed as an attempt either to be punitive or to avoid unpleasantness.

Set limits

When you have made your best effort to settle a situation and cooperation is still lacking, limit-setting is often important, Resist the temptation to engage in personal characterizations or name-calling, and instead, give the person a choice. Describe the behavior and spell out the consequences that will occur if it continues. Example: "I want to work this out, but if you keep yelling and swearing at me, you are going to have to leave."

If the above strategies fail, and you feel your safety is threatened, get out of the situation, get help, or do what ever else is necessary to protect yourself.

Richard J. Shurell, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist

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