How to Deal with Angry Citizens


The bright spring morning in the fire administration offices had been quiet until she showed up. “There’s a citizen at the front desk to see you,” the receptionist said in hushed tones over the phone. The deputy chief rose from his desk and walked to the front desk. “I wonder what this is about,” he mused to himself.

He noticed a woman standing by the front desk holding a small pitcher filled with reddish-brown liquid. As he approached, she held the pitcher up and demanded, “What are you going to do about this?!” The chief realized that the water she carried was from her washing machine, badly roiled because of a hydrant flushing program conducted in her neighborhood the previous evening.

As the chief launched into a bureaucratic explanation defending the fire department’s actions, the woman’s face took on a deeper shade of red. Her lips pursed, and she began to shake her head side-to-side. Suddenly, she emptied the contents of the pitcher on the chief’s white shirt and stomped away.

Sometimes you can see it coming toward you, like a dark storm cloud pushing relentlessly your way. Other times, it appears suddenly, like a “stealth fighter” firing painful missiles your way: the angry person. If you haven’t already been confronted by such an angry person in your role as a fire officer, you certainly will experience it one day.

Anger in our society seems to be occurring more frequently and with more intensity. At times it seems anger is everywhere–on the highways, in the workplace, at sporting events (even youth games!) and, most unfortunately, at home. As public figures, fire officers are vulnerable to attack by angry citizens. Unless you properly prepare and develop conflict-resolution skills, such encounters will escalate into a series of angry exchanges that fail to solve the problem. Sometimes, they can even lead to violence.  

Following is some practical advice on how to deal with angry people. For this discussion, let’s assume that your aggressor, “David,” is physically somewhat bigger than you. David confronts you, manifesting anger with a touch of physical intimidation.

Slow Down
Look directly at David and take a deep breath. No matter how intimidated you are, speak lower (volume and pitch) and slower than he does. Ask respectful questions, and apologize if you’ve done anything to upset him. It’s amazing how your lower, slower speech and controlled demeanor can cause his adrenaline to ebb, allowing him to calm down.

Choose your words carefully, making no excuses for your actions nor statements that cast David in a negative light–even if richly deserved. Take his complaint seriously and listen … listen … listen to what he has to say. Ignoring David’s distress or minimizing his feelings will likely stoke his anger.

Paraphrase back to him what he tells you. Ask whether you have restated his concerns correctly. Numerous incidents involving workplace violence might have been averted had someone listened with empathy rather than responding defensively or speaking in an insensitive manner.

In addition, respond to his underlying hurt or pain rather than to his angry words. Use statements that describe David’s emotions (e.g., “I can see that you’re angry”), but don’t excuse or justify his inappropriate behavior (e.g., “I would be angry, too”).

Let him know you’re more cooperative when he isn’t yelling or threatening you. Demonstrate that you are not intimidated (even though you might feel that way!) thereby signaling strength without verbalizing it. After acknowledging his anger, offer to meet with him at a time when both of you are calm.

Cool the Burn
Do not respond in kind. Your hostility would make the situation more volatile. Respond instead with a non-hostile message to defuse David’s hostile manner toward you. “Road rage” incidents illustrate this principle. Typically an act of inconsiderate driving erupts into road rage because the drivers escalate the hostility as they respond to each other’s words, glares or gestures. You affect the outcome by your decision to return hostility or refrain from it.

Maintain regular, rather than challenging, eye contact; do not stare. Positive eye contact shows respect for him and your resolve to deal with his issue. Ask David to sit down and discuss this mutual concern with you, tactfully keeping a desk or other piece of furniture between you. These actions inform him that you’re interested in his situation, yet they also work to keep you safe.

Maintain a respectful distance, and don’t attempt a “reassuring touch.” When dealing with an angry person, some people’s initial impulse is to move closer and touch the agitated person. Although it’s intended as a calming gesture, it may be perceived as an attack, triggering a self-defense response. Regardless of your intent, touching a very angry person is presumptive, unwise and unsafe.

Pursue Solutions
In the heat of the moment, don’t waste time trying to defend yourself; your defensiveness could stoke anger in the other person. There may come a time when you can present your point of view, but not when David is unable to comprehend it (as when he’s consumed by his anger). Let him know you respect his opinions and will carefully consider what he has to say. Point out his ability to help settle the issue/problem by soliciting his help in finding a solution that works for both of you.

Don’t try to solve an emotional issue with logical arguments. Trying to diffuse David’s anger with overwhelming evidence of his mistakes in logic, with contradicting facts or with reasons why he shouldn’t feel the way he does only makes the situation worse.

If David tries to leave the scene, don’t block his way or you may put yourself in danger. Don’t insist on solving the problem “now” when he’s agitated and possibly not thinking clearly. Elect to reduce the heat rather than increase the pressure.

Ask what you can do to make things better. Don’t guess–ask! Again, this shows respect. If you can do what is requested, do it. If asked for an apology, don’t get caught up in the old “I don’t think I did anything wrong” foolishness–just apologize. Your belief that you did nothing wrong is irrelevant; we’re talking about resolving a disruptive, potentially dangerous situation. There’s little value in proclaiming that you’re right in the face of potential violence! If David poses a credible threat of physical harm toward you, ask him how hurting you (with its criminal penalties) will help him achieve his purpose.

Note: Never argue with a person who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is not the time to try to solve problems. Drinking decreases inhibitions about what may be said, impairs judgment and distorts rational thinking. Simply express recognition of the person’s concerns and commit to picking up the discussion when both of you are prepared to do so.

Angry people and hostile behavior increasingly seem to be a part of our society as various factors pressure people into threats and confrontations. Fire officers do not get a “pass” on dealing with these individuals, nor should they attempt to “turf” the issue up the chain of command. Competent leaders must learn how to effectively deal with angry people.

The skill set for such situations centers on practiced “active listening,” defusing and alertness for the safety of all involved. Understanding, patience and genuine attention to the emotions of an angry person are key to navigating these situations. In addition, the value of building and practicing this skill set extends well beyond the workplace. You’ll find it essential in the many roles you fill.

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