How to Respectfully Deal With Angry People

Stephanie Cansian
4 min readJun 12, 2023

What 15 years in retail taught me about anger and being the bigger person.

Photo by Rick Rogers on Unsplash

I spent 15 years working in retail for such companies as Borders Books, Apple, and Starbucks. And even in those high-end bastions of retail, I have had to deal with angry people. Here is the best way I’ve learned to de-escalate a situation and how to tell when you need to bring in help.

First, figure out why the person is angry as quickly as possible. It’s usually one of three reasons:

  1. They feel misunderstood and frustrated. They believe their unique situation is not coming across clearly, and the salesperson isn’t helping them or making an attempt to understand their needs.
  2. They feel disrespected. What does that mean? Breaking it down, when a person feels disrespected, there is a disparity between the amount of respect expected by the customer and the perceived amount of respect received.
  3. They feel their safety is jeopardized. Now, most of the time, their physical safety is not in danger, but they do feel cornered into having to make a decision they don’t want to make and they can’t see a way out of it. That stress response of “fight, flight, or freeze” is the same in the wild as it is in a Target.

Now, what do each of those reasons start with?

Emotions are manipulative. Just like people purchase with emotion, people can act out in anger even if nothing physically happens. It’s the right (or, in this case, wrong) emotional triggers that create a tense situation.

How do you de-escalate feelings?

With active listening and empathy.

Step 1: Acknowledge that there is a problem. You can see the person is visibly upset. Whether there is an actual problem or not, that is how they perceive the situation. And their perception is their reality. So, acknowledge it. Ask the customer to clarify what’s happening so they know that they are being heard and understood. Then you can move on to step two.

Step 2: Align yourself with them. Even if you have never been in their exact situation before, you have been that person who’s been angry at a situation or salesperson before. Aligning with them shows that you understand their feelings and empathize with them. You can respect their position, thereby assuaging the anger of being disrespected. From here, you can move to step three.

Step 3: Assure them that you will do everything you can to make the situation right, but sometimes the best option you can give them is to go somewhere else. This option takes care of the fight or flight response; you effectively provide them with a way out if they choose.

I can count on one hand the number of times this series of actions did NOT turn an angry customer into a pacified or even happy customer.

With that in mind, here is how to tell when you need to bring in someone else:

  1. They segregate you. I had customers refuse to work with me because I was a woman and white. When they start segregating you, you are no longer a person, and it’s time to bring in someone else. It is not the time to have logical discourse on gender and race identity. Descalate first.
  2. When they threaten your physical safety. If the person invades your personal space by poking your chest, grabbing your shoulder, or verbally threatening you, they need to leave the premises, and you need to take some time to make sure you are okay.
  3. When they hang around. If you have already concluded your interaction, and the person does not leave, that indicates they haven’t resolved their anger yet. Some people hold on to grudges like a personality trait, and those can escalate too far too fast.

From my experience, those three are in the minority. Most situations turn around with active listening, empathy, and a courteous follow-up.

When people feel wronged, it’s too easy to allow emotions to rage righteously. We see enough news and viral videos of that happening; it’s behavior that is both shunned and celebrated at the same time.

If you find yourself in a rising situation, remember: keep calm, acknowledge the issue, align with the person, assure them of your desire to help, and follow up courteously.

We are all citizens of the world, and the better we understand ourselves, the better we can relate to and help others.

If you want content like this written for your business, blog, or organization, reach out to me at steph@stephaniecansian.com

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Stephanie Cansian

Former employee of Apple, Starbucks, and Amazon, who vowed never to be an employee again. Copywriter, coordinator, and proven catalyst for 10X change.