How do you deal with angry and hostile people?

Laura and I were recently pulled over by a police officer while out riding our motorcycle. It was a beautiful Sunday and we had a great day. On our way home, about a block from home, there is a four way stop. I came to a complete stop but did not put my feet down and proceeded to make a right turn. Admittedly, I ran the stop sign because I did not put my feet down even though the Harley came to a complete stop. The officer was absolutely THE most verbally abusive, hostile and belligerent person I have ever encountered in public. I have no room here for the details but trust me when I tell you that this was a scary and intimidating experience.

Ironically, neither of us said more than a sentence in the entire 10 minute rant and verbal berating. At the end of the experience, I didn’t get a ticket nor did he ever look at my driver’s license or registration. It REALLY made me think about how many people this officer deals with in a day; how many other people there are in all walks of life who are aggressive and that full of rage with or without provocation.

I wonder how many people there are that would have reacted differently than we did. My point here is: you may have encountered or will encounter a person like this at some point in your life. How would you respond? This is NOT about the officer or the fact that he had all the power. So please do not be distracted by his occupation. Stay focused on his behavior. What is your response when faced with defensiveness, anger or even rage? How equipped are you to handle others’ lack of self control? Do you ignore it? Do you sit quietly and take the verbal beating? Do you confront it? Do you politely asked them to stop?

Most of my early work was writing about and studying anger and all of its manifestations. I have taught many, many people how to deal with it, but not until this Sunday afternoon did I actually get a sense of what it’s like when rage meets power. Daunting, to say the least. So this month I want to share with you the 7 best things you can do when faced with hostility and rage.

1. Stay calm. Focus on your breathing, make it slow and steady. Sitting on that motorcycle my primary thought was, “breathe slowly and stay focused and calm”.
2. Say as little as possible, being polite and respectful. Focus on details so if a report is necessary you will remember the details – it’s very important. In my case, I said “yes sir” and “no sir” and focused on my breathing and emotional state. I noticed time of day, location of my bike, his height, weight, type of car, etc.
3. Make as little eye contact as possible. I looked down at my gas tank or straight ahead except for the occasional turn in his direction to answer a question.
4. DO NOT TAKE THE BAIT. Often angry people will ask you questions, make accusations or otherwise attempt to escalate you. In my case he yelled, “I don’t know how old you are but I would bet 22 years of paychecks that you have been a law breaker your entire life.”
5. Accept responsibility for what is yours but NOTHING else. Do accept all the blame if it’s not all yours. You need not argue just simply accept what is yours and be silent.
6. Get out of the physical space you are in and away from the situation as quickly and as safely as possible.
7. As soon as you are able, write down EVERY detail of what happened. It will serve two purposes. The first is that it will help you purge the toxicity of the encounter. Second, if you need to report it to HR or the police or your boss or any higher authority, your report will be facts-based not emotionally charged. When we called the police department to share our experience we were given huge respect and earnest listening because we were calm and detailed about what happened.

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