Bret* was a Sherman tank. Didn’t drive one; he was one. He was ticked off – at me! And he wasn’t in a mood to pout or negotiate. He came with a verbal Uzi, convinced I had done him wrong, and he was going to let me know about it. (For the record, he was wrong about me doing him wrong, but he was in no mood to hear it. Or hear anything, for that matter.)
Right in the middle of the tirade, as this hulk of a man was blowing me away, I had this surreal experience. It was the Lord, I believe, speaking to me. “Just let him finish. With everything he has to say.” So I did. I just sat there and took it. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like his attitude. I didn’t like his complete blindness to the facts. But I took it.
“Is there anything else?”
“No, that’s about it,” he said very gruffly.
“Okay, well I’m very sorry you feel that way. I’ll see to it that you never feel that way because of me again.”
That was 11:00 a.m. At 2:00 p.m., the phone rang; it was Bret again. Totally different story.
“Man, I just want you to know, I’m on your team. I so appreciate you.”
I quickly ruled out the possibility of demon possession, mental illness (that one took a bit longer), or bribe money. No, Bret had just emptied himself of his poison. And he meant it. He was on my team.
Seth Godin talks about the need to deal differently with angry people here. He’s right; angry people are on a different planet, guided by different sensibilities, expressed in different ways. It’s counterproductive to treat them the same as non-angry people. But if you can convert the angry person to the non-angry one, you can make a real pal. Sort of like the total stranger I met at a gas station in Northern Virginia.
“Daddy, don’t!” my ill-advised children whispered tensely from the back seat.
We were on a D.C. vacation, stopping by a station to refill the rental car. Somehow I crossed up this guy and got in his way as he was trying to get himself to a gas pump. He started gesturing and hollering and making childish facial expressions.
I don’t know what possessed me, but I just pulled up next to him (kids horrified in the back seat), rolled down my window, and just stared at him. Not mad. Nothing but curiosity – sort of like Lucy, our cat, who just looks at strange things for the sake of looking at them.
So anyway, I just rolled down the window and looked at him, saying nothing. The guy wilted. He rolled down his window and sheepishly said something lame about his frustrations and how bad his day was going. I guess he was now on my team, too. I just smiled as nicely as I could, and drove off without saying a word.
So how do you handle the angry people you run into?
It used to horrify me if somebody blew their horn at me. Now sometimes I just blow mine back. Yeah, sometimes I’m mad, too. But sometimes I’m just, well, blowing back. (This is not particularly spiritual advice; just an observation.)
Angry people come in four forms: shouters, pouters, clouters, and routers.
Shouters are easy to identify. They, well, shout – like Bret did.
Pouters get quiet and wait for you to ask what’s wrong. Then they say nothing’s wrong, hoping you’ll say, “Of course something’s wrong, what’s wrong?”
“Clouters” isn’t really a word until today, when I made it up because it rhymes with shouter and pouter. A clouter is a person who uses his or her clout to change the world and get it done now! “Outta my way” is central to their vocabulary.
Routers are dangerous because they smile quietly at you. They smile a whole lot. They smile because they’re planning to ambush you sometime and get even with you for making them angry.
So how do you transform angry people to team members?
Let me hasten to say that this is about situationally angry people, not habitually abusive, destructive people. That’s a completely different set of issues. For the rest, try this. It may or may not “work,” but at least it can help you keep a bit of your sanity, even while the Brets of this world are losing theirs:
Shouters – Hear them Out.
Don’t argue with shouters – they’ll only shout more. And if you out-shout them, it’s usually a case of winning the battle, but losing the war. When shouters run out of steam, they’re either ready to listen or they’re suddenly ashamed of their childish behavior. Remember, regardless of what they say, the issue really is them, not you!
Pouters – Call them Out.
Yes, sometimes this is just as counter-intuitive. My knee-jerk reaction (though I am often a pouter myself) is often to let pouters stew in their pouting. But with pouters, it really does seem to help if you go through all of that asking what’s wrong and stuff. Let them know they’re important – more important than whatever issues you deal with.
Clouters – Act it Out.
Clouters want action, so help them solve the problem. Match their energy. In customer situations, empower employees to solve problems. In family situations, turn off the TV and get out of the recliner and get something done. In social situations, work to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Routers – Wait it Out.
Things change. People change. And God still changes people and things. That router who declares she’ll never shop here again just may return, if she has a compelling reason. That guy who has written you off may very well come back around. Just work on solutions, learn from their frustrations, and give it time.
In every situation: Pray! As Norman Cousins once said, “Life is an adventure in forgiving.”
Or as Solomon put it:
“Don’t be quick to fly off the handle. Anger boomerangs. You can spot a fool by the lumps on his head” (Ecclesiastes 7:9, The Message).
(* – not his real name. Once having him ticked off at me is enough.)