5 Keys for De-escalating Anger

Nathan Gerbrandt

anger, anger de-escalation, violence prevention, self-care, mental health, front line workers, trauma, trauma-informed

As someone who coordinates training for groups throughout North America, I am struck that at a time of physical distancing, I’m seeing an increase in organizations expressing concern over the physical safety of their employees. And it’s not only from those who work in front line, health care, or public facing roles – anyone whose work requires them to be in public is experiencing increasingly intense and emotionally heightened interactions.

I believe that in most situations, and for most people, an interactional approach to de-escalating potentially violent situations is the most effective and safest way forward. An interactional approach focuses on an understanding of anger, self awareness, and actively choosing to validate our human connection to achieve physically safe interactions.

It starts with an awareness of anger. The majority of the time, violence happens when people are angry!

Anger is a signal, not a deficit.

Here are five ways you can recognize when someone’s anger is escalating, along with strategies for how to de-escalate them:

1. Understand how someone climbs Anger Mountain

I’ve heard it said that “COVID-19 is like pouring emotional gunpowder on someone pouring gasoline on a raging fire.” The triggers that can produce an anger response in us are as abundant as ever! Whether that be financial anxiety, health concerns, uncertainty over the future, challenges with children, misunderstandings at work, lack of sleep, etc.

Any event that increases our uncertainty or loss of control can trigger our body’s physiological response and send us climbing Anger Mountain. With this climb comes a narrowing in our thinking, a decrease in communication skills, a resentment of the world, and a sharp risk of doing something we regret. I’ve personally witnessed an increase in people getting burned by misunderstandings and heated arguments.

With everyone’s emotions closer to the surface, our triggers can also get milder and more benign. Something that may have rolled off our back a year ago could result in a rapid ascent of anger mountain.

Instead of offering a de-escalating presence, our emotion-led reaction can have the counterproductive result of pouring gasoline on a growing fire.

2. Feeling the shadow of Anger Mountain

Being in the presence of someone who is scaling Anger Mountain not only puts our physical safety at risk – it can radically impact our emotional state as well. Think of the last time you were the recipient of the verbal barrage and physical posturing of an angry person. How did it hijack your emotions?

As social beings, we are significantly impacted by the emotions of others. We can quickly get pulled down the parallel spiral of reduced judgement and into our own reactive fight/flight/freeze response. Instead of offering a de-escalating presence, our emotion-led reaction can have the counterproductive result of pouring gasoline on a growing fire.

3. Safety is about awareness and acting (rather than reacting)

Acting is about being aware, intentional, and thoughtful, which is why it’s important to take a moment to notice our own reaction response within our body and mind. Acting may be as simple as pausing to count to 10, taking a breath to collect our thoughts, or simply being aware enough to manage our fight, flight, or freeze response.

A mindful pause, however slight, can also help us generate compassion. We may recognize the overwhelming stress, trauma, and emotional hurt that similarly causes us to do and say things we regret. Knowing “we’ve been there too” can also inspire a more creative action.

A mindful pause, however slight, can also help us generate compassion.

4. Pay attention to body language and never underestimate the impact of a non-anxious person

Acting also means intentionally considering and choosing our body language. The way we hold our faces and bodies is an immensely powerful communicator. Here it can be important to know your go-to position when you’re under immediate pressure and emotional stress. Do you naturally react by defensively crossing your arms or adopting an aggressive hands-on-the-hips posture? Does your face go into an eye roll or furrowed brow? Body language can be vastly more important than any words we say. If what we say doesn’t match up with our body language, our words will be barely a whisper.

You can project calmness and connection through same height eye contact; open, exposed, relaxed hands; and offering personal space. To demonstrate attention and validation, it is important to project a neutral, “less is more” face while trying to reduce excess movements.

Knowing your go-to habits and what they may inadvertently communicate can be the difference between sending an escalating message and a safe resolution.

5. There are no magic words to say to bring someone down from Anger Mountain (or are there?)

When you encounter a person in crisis, it is essential to make every effort to validate and connect on a personal level. Confrontation happens when others see you as the enemy.

What can you do to generate evidence to the contrary and communicate, “I am not your enemy”? I highly recommend a short but powerfully effective question: “Can you tell me more about that?” This powerful question does three key things to offer validation and foster a safe outcome:

  • It shows you care and creates an empathic environment by validating the person’s concerns.
  • It helps the person feel heard and gives us insight as to what might be at play behind the anger.
  • It focuses attention on an escalating person’s thinking brain. This helps engage cognitive capacities and right emotional imbalance. When someone is trying to tell you what they most want you to understand, teaching drains outrage!

Embracing this validating approach to safety not only has the positive effect of increasing physical safety – it also harnesses the positive power of human connection. During a socially distant and disconnected time, this is crucial to all of our mental and emotional health.


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Author: Nathan Gerbrandt (MSW, RSW)
Managing Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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