Angry outbursts

What would you do?

The well known author Alan Duff was stopped for speeding. He didn’t like being stopped so he ‘ranted’ and swore at the officer who eventually had to handcuff and arrest him. The judge subsequently let him off the charges and in effect said that our freedom of speech includes being able to express ourselves passionately and with feeling. It’s OK to get angry.

John Carter, a government member in the New Zealand parliament, got aggressive and swore at the police officer who pulled him up for not indicating before turning. He was reprimanded for this outburst by his boss, Prime Minister John Key, and made to apologise to the police. “I’ve made it quite clear to him that is totally unacceptable behaviour. It’s not appropriate.” John Key said on television. “It’s not okay to get angry.”

Okay or not, it is happening a lot more in our world and it is difficult to respond to angry outbursts. So here are two things you can do.

Two steps for responding to angry outbursts Young guy with phone

Step One:


The person who is upset and ‘behaving badly’ has strong feelings. The emotions are right there in front of you. Feelings themselves aren’t good or bad. They just are. So respond to the feelings. Acknowledge them without judgement. Don’t act as if they are not present.Pay full attention and respond to the emotion.

You could make a simple statement like:

  • “This is very upsetting for you”.
  • “I can see this has made you really annoyed”
  • “You really have had the run around. I’m sorry about that.”
  • Be careful! Never say: “I know exactly how you feel” That assumes you can read the other person’s mind. It will most likely annoy them more!

Step Two:

Ignore the expression of emotions that you consider to be bad.

Sometimes when someone acts badly we want to correct them or reprimand them. It can happen if their anger and upsetness is directed towards us. Trying to act like their parent doesn’t work in the long run.

Learn from the people who train killer whales at SeaWorld and such places. They never punish “bad behaviour” in these massive creatures. They’d get eaten alive if they tried it. Instead they gain the trust of the animals first. Step One would help you gain the trust of the other person. When the whales ‘misbehave’ their trainers mostly ignore it or divert the killer whale’s attention elsewhere to something they have the ability to do. This is much better than making a negative response which further reinforces the bad behaviour and has the potential to annoy the whale.

It’s not always easy to do this with people, but you will find it works. If you foster a good relationship in Step One by acknowledging the emotion that prompts them to speak badly, the person won’t need to keep ranting and raving to be heard by you. They will realise you hear them no matter what. When they know you are with them, and you are not reacting to their ‘bad behaviour’ there’s a much better chance of getting down to business.


These two steps simplify the situation considerably. In real life there are many factors to take into account. You have to assess whether the person’s clenched fists and angry looks mean they are going to physically attack you. This is why we often have a sense of foreboding when someone is angry. We don’t know if we might get hurt. In this regard it is more than ‘just a feeling’ on their part. Acknowledging their feelings can be a quick way to de-escalate the situation so that we don’t in fact get hurt.

You do need to decide if getting angry is just their way of letting off steam. Some cultures are very expressive while others are more restrained. People shout and gesticulate furiously over the smallest thing.

These are some of the things we tease out more in the TUF workshops. For now consider these two steps you can take when someone is upset and angry towards you.

Originally published in July 2008

Contact us for more information on the TUF: Thriving Under Fire programme.


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