Sometimes life puts us in undesirable situations that can challenge us to the core, leaving us on the verge of kicking someone in the shins. Or, at the very least, shredding them with verbal kung fu.
No matter how emotionally advanced we may be, there are situations and people that can provoke us to the core, erecting our defenses. It’s easy to become entangled in other people’s nonsense and wind up doing and saying things we regret.
Even if we were right, and they were wrong, stooping to the level of the jerk that triggers us, never helps anyone. Thankfully (or maybe not:), life presents many opportunities to practice dealing with unreasonable, and even angry, abusive people. These experiences are never pleasant, but there is an effective approach to handling them.
Avoid Regretting Your Reaction
I just had one such experience last week in which this approach was tested… let me tell you about the insanity of this experience…
In November of 2021, I signed up for a month membership in a small gym near Lewes, Delaware. Instead of employing staff to man the door, they use key fobs, which cost $50. I got my key fob and enjoyed using the space for the month.
In late April 2021, I grabbed my key fob and headed over to reactivate my fob and get a quick workout. Of course, my key fob didn’t work, and there wasn’t anyone there to activate it. Seeing my key fob, a member popped the door open for me.
Good Intentions Aren’t Always Visible
Assuming someone would arrive during my workout, I planned to re-activate my card on the way out. Sure enough, about ten minutes into my workout, I made eye contact with the owner when she came in.
Cool, I thought, I’ll finish my workout, and then stop in her office on my way out.
About ten minutes later, I was standing on one foot in the middle of a bosu ball, with a dumbbell in the opposite hand (a vulnerable position for me due to nerve pain in my hands. Precision is critical, commanding my focus), when the owner charged toward me.
Talking To Crazy
“What are you doing?” she commanded.
Confused, I responded, “How do you mean? I’m exercising”
“You know exactly what I mean!” she said, increasing her volume.
“No, I really don’t.“
“You don’t have a membership here. What are you doing here?”
“I have my key fob,” I said, “It just needs to be re-activated. There wasn’t anybody here when I got here, so another member let me in,” I said, with my heart now in my throat, “I was hoping someone would come while I was here.”
Over the next several seconds (felt like minutes), her volume increased, as she doubled down on putting me in my place… publicly. “You knew that you were putting me at risk,” she said, “you haven’t signed a waiver.”
“Shit,” I said, “I didn’t even think about that,” and then offered my best apology.
“Bullshit, you’re not new to gyms… you knew.”
You’re Never Trapped
Physically trapped (she was between me and the door), I took a deep breath, and asked, “Why are you yelling at me?“
That question only intensified her anger, ultimately leading to her head exploding as she pointed to the exit—“Get out of my gym.”
I was happy to leave. I just needed to put my things away, which I let her know.
“I’ll put it away myself,” she commanded, as if somehow that was going to cause me to release eye contact with her to turn and grab my things. In our five second stare off (just before she turned and walked away), I couldn’t help but imagine how fearful she must be to treat me that way.
Had I made a mistake? Yep. And… no one deserves to be treated that way. Yet, it happens, and so it’s helpful to tool up for these unwanted moments.
Tools To Avoid Reacting Negatively To Angry People
Whether someone is coming at you from the back, front, or sideways (through other people), there are a few practical keys to staying on sturdy ground, and responding instead of reacting.
- Breathe. When threats happen, your brain shuts off blood flow to the frontal cortex. Taking deep breaths helps you calm and regain access to reasoning.
- Ask Clarifying Questions. To buy yourself a few seconds to breathe, try repeating back what you heard them say, or ask a clarifying question. “How do you mean?” Was the question that helped me.
- Check Your Intentions. This was my saving grace. I knew my intentions were to sign up for a membership. I also knew that I would not have entered her gym if I would have thought this was a potential outcome. Knowing this helped me to stay grounded, kind, compassionate, and even empathetic.
- Remove Yourself. When people get angry and project onto you, simply take yourself out of the situation as quickly as possible. In this case, I was cornered in her gym, and needed to gather my things before leaving. Staying calm helped, though if I’m honest, I completely lost my shit when I got out of the gym and away from her.
- Be (Unreasonably) Kind. With all the uncertainty and change, fear is running rampant in many of us. It’s not personal… we sometimes just get trapped in fears, and sadly anger (sometimes rage) spewing from the other person is the way they treat (and talk to) themselves.
No one can hurt someone else without hurting themselves. Everyone is fighting some hard battle… decide now to be kind, even if somebody else is a jerk.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, I paid $50 for that key fob. On my way out, I placed the key fob on her desk and wished her a good day. Then, I walked out… frustrated with the situation and all it triggered in me, but also proud of my reaction.
As the pandemic, racial tension, and politics continue to stir up fears, ground yourself, take some breathes and remember… every experience is here to help you come closer to yourself and your higher power.
Powerlessness is a gift that allows us the opportunity to rely on a power greater than ourselves. For some of us, that is a very difficult journey. Thankfully, it gets easier and easier every time we practice.
Here’s to your greatness,
Misti Burmeister helps leaders and their team have conversations they keep avoiding but need to have. For nearly 20 years, she has facilitated communication that results in trust, increasing engagement and productivity across generations. Make sure your communication is coming across the way you intend, visit https://www.MistiBurmeister.com