Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response options to an
 angry or frustrated person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/angry.htm

Updated  01-08-15

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This YouTube video offers perspective on using anger and frustration. The video mentions eight lessons in thus Web site: I've simplified that to seven:

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you experience as angry and frustrated. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it.

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone.

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

  • how to benefit from anger and frustration

      If there's a chronically angry and/or frustrated person in your life, keep them inn mind as you read.


      Think of the last time you interacted with an angry adult or child. How did you feel? Anxious? Intimidated? Impatient? Scornful? Combative? Defensive? Nervous? Worried? Numb? Like leaving?

      How did you respond - try to calm them? Raise your voice? Avoid eye contact? Freeze? Plead? Whine? Complain? Swear? Threaten? Attack? Try "reasoning?" Get sarcastic? Roll your eyes? Demand? Lecture? Discount their feeling? ("You're upset over nothing!"). Did your response "work well" (fill your current needs)? Would you rather respond differently?

       What did your early-childhood adults teach you and model about responding to angry and frustrated people? Many people are unaware of their response to an angry person, and don't know their options. That's why this article exists.  

  Anger vs. Frustration

      Premise - though they feel alike, anger follows feeling hurt or threatened, and frustration signals an inability to fill important needs. So they merit different responses. I've met few people who can (a) distinguish anger from frustration, and/or (b) relate anger or rage to hurt or threat (perceived danger). Do you know anyone who can do these? Can you? Let's look at each of them.

Hurt or Threat and Anger

       Emotional responses to these normal emotions vary with five things...

  • how they're expressed...

impulsively or controlled,

timidly, firmly, or harshly (aggressively);

loudly or quietly;

sarcastically or respectfully,

verbally and/or nonverbally,

ranting or reasonably,

blamefully or objectively, or

wordily or briefly.

        Reflect on recent experiences with angry people - which combination of these variables is the hardest for you to respond to - i.e. which mix of these anger-styles raises your E(motion) level the fastest and highest? Do you know why?

  • whom hurt and anger are directed at - you, someone you care about, or someone else, like a stranger, "the government," co-workers, neighbors, Arabs, Democrats, Baptists, lawyers, Latinos, gypsies, street people, preachers, egotists, teens, men or women, etc..

      And responses vary with...

  • whether the responding person is (you are) guided by their true Self or a false self - e.g. shamed, guilty, scared, hostile, distorting, or paralyzing subselves; and...

  • the anger policy of the responder, (e.g. most anger is normal and OK, or it isn't); and...

  • the type of relationship between the two people - parent-child, mate-mate, boss-employee, friend-friend, two strangers, man-woman, authority-non-authority, police-citizen, etc.

       These variables explain why some angry people intimidate or paralyze others, and other ragers evoke pity, scorn, discounts, criticism, or aggression. Given this range of variables, is there a "best way" to respond to an angry person? Stay tuned...


      Premise - all human behavior (like yours) is an endless quest to reduce the current mix of  physical, emotional, and spiritual discomforts, or needs. Needs are vary dynamically, and usually come in clusters.

      Frustration can look and sound like anger, but is a normal reaction to being unable to reduce current needs. Reality check - recall the last time you felt frustrated, and ask "What needs was I unable to satisfy then?

      The normal mental-emotional-physical response called frustration can be momentary or lasting, and mild to intense. It can cause behaviors that (may) cause regret and apologies - e.g. crying, cursing, name-calling, yelling, shoving, hitting, throwing, and/or breaking things. A normal task of "growing up" is gaining "impulse control" over "tantrums" like these (remember?)

      Have you ever been "very upset' at not being able to fill key needs? How do you usually respond to others who aggressively demonstrate - or deny and repress - their frustration? Do you agree that most people don't realize what causes frustration, and how it differs from anger?

Is there a "best way" to respond to an extremely frustrated person? How about to someone who is both frustrated and angry? See what you think about these...

  Response Options

      Reflect - do you have an "anger hero/ine" who responds effectively in the face of major anger and frustration? If so, keep her or him in mind as you read. Now think of someone in your life who is apt to react with significant anger and/or frustration at you or someone you care about. 

  • Effective responses to any "problem" behavior begin with checking to see if your true Self is guiding you. If not, delay your response and do what you can to correct that - or lower your communication expectations.

  • Recall the important difference between surface needs and underlying primary needs.Most people aren't aware of this difference, which can promote frustration and wasted time and energy.

  • Remind yourself that all feelings are useful pointers to unfilled needs. There are no "negative" emotions. There are harmful ways of expressing emotions.

  • Check your attitude. If you feel emotional outbursts are "wrong," "bad," "childish," "ridiculous," "silly," or "insensitive"...

    • a false self probably dominates you, and...

    • you'll probably broadcast an ''I'm superior'' attitude unconsciously with your face, body, and voice tone.

    That will add to the upset person's discomfort, and promote arguments, criticisms, or fights!

  • Avoid platitudes like "Don't worry," "Don't be upset / angry," "Just calm down, will you?" "Shh, shhh...," "It'll get better, don't worry..." These well-meant responses discount the other person, and are almost always motivated to reduce your discomforts. And... 

  • Learn to assess whether the other person is [hurt or scared) + angry; or frustrated, or both. Options: Ask something like...

"What's wrong?"

"What do you need (from me) right now?"

"What would make you feel better now?"

Has something hurt you?"

Are you frustrated or angry - or both?"

Their answer is apt to be reflexive and superficial. Option - if the other person is  willing, dig down to discover their current feelings and primary needs.

      More response-options...

  • Keep your personal rights clear and your boundaries firm - specially if the other person is upset with you. Protecting your integrity and dignity requires your Self (capital "S") to guide you.

  • Assess whether the upset person's E(motion) level is "above or below their ears" (i.e. if they can hear you). If it's above - and you're centered - use respectful empathic listening to bring it down and restore their hearing.

  • Beware of ''rescuing'' - feeling responsible for making the upset person "feel better," unless you're unintentionally doing something that upsets him or her. Doing that is often about relieving your own discomfort around someone's hurt, anger, and frustration. Option - see anger and frustration as opportunities to problem-solve - when true Selves are in charge.

  • If the upset person accepts the reality of personality subselves, you may ask (when s/he can hear you) "Which of your subselves are causing your strong feelings?"

  • If the other person's behavior scares, offends, and/or worries your subselves, consider responding with a calm, thoughtful, respectful ''I''-message like...

"(Name), when you yell / swear / get violent / throw things / hit things / break things / name-call / etc., I feel scared / worried / attacked / disrespected / weary / dread / frustrated / ________, (optionally) and I need you to _______________."

Expect resistance to this, and respond with empathic listening. Then repeat your I-message with good eye contact until (you feel heard, or  you both shift to problem-solving.

      This brief video explains assertive "I-messages":

  • Decide what outcome you need from your response. Then select options from the above, and judge whether your communication was effective or not. If not - learn from that, and try other options and/or revise your goals.

      Pause and notice your thoughts and feelings.  Think of any kids or adults who can be "significantly" angry and/or frustrated around you. Review the response-options above, and see which of them feel practical and appropriate. Edit them to better fit your style and personality as needed.


      This is one of a series of articles suggesting effective responses to common social behaviors. This article offers perspective on anger and frustration, and specific options for responding effectively to a significantly angry and/or frustrated person. The options are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge;

  • maintaining a genuine (vs. strategic) mutual-respect attitude;

  • learning to differentiate anger from frustration, and what causes each of them;

  • clarifying your feelings, needs, and mutual human rights; and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

For more perspective and options, see these articles on improving communication with kids and other adults. See also these options for responding to aggressive, arrogant, over-dramatic, and wounded people.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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