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The Steps of Emphathy

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If we want to effectively deal with other people’s anger in a way that resolves the issue and maintains the relationship, there are certain key strategies and behaviours which we need to employ. The best (‘emotionally intelligent’) approach involves a combination of communication and problem-solving strategies. This de-escalation process also involves certain stages which need to be followed sequentially.

Safety First. If you’re confronted with someone with out-of-control anger, first take steps to protect yourself from any potential violence (leave, go to a safe place, wait until your spouse is sober, etc.). Often, a “time-out period” reduces the hostility level. If you stay in a volatile situation, it may spiral into violence, so the most rational thing to do, if possible, is to just walk away.

That’s not to say you should never confront someone just because it will bring on a conflict situation. You have to know how you’re going to handle that conflict, though. Size up the person you’re confronting and be ready to protect yourself, especially if it’s a stranger. Defuse. To help de-escalate the situation, experiment with the following three steps:

Look for the unmet need.

Ask the angry person, “What is it you are angry with me about?” and listen for the unmet expectation or need. (Anger always involves a frustrated need or expectation). The initial step in defusing the anger is therefore to clarify that you have understood what has brought it on. One of the best ways to do this is to paraphrase the situation back to the angry person, minus the anger. Thus, a parent might say to an angry teen: “Let me make sure I understand you. You’re saying you’re upset because I asked you to choose between the class trip to Rajasthan and the rural camp?” This kind of feedback clarifies the core reason for the anger, putting aside the clutter such as fumes about “You always…” and “You never…”, and “I wish I were…”. With these out of the way, the problem becomes more life-sized.

Empathy is the key word in this process. Genuinely strive to look at the situation through the angry person’s eyes. Suspend all judgment. Take care you do not come across as impatient or condescending. Here are some effective de-fusers:

–”I can understand your frustration…” –”I can certainly see why that would upset you…” –”I know how annoying that can be…” –”I know what you mean; that has happened to me, and it can be very upsetting.”

Apartfrom empathy, you can also use sympathy:

–”I’m sorry you’ve had a problem…” –”I’m sorry this has inconvenienced you…” –”I’m sorry to hear about that…”

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