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Leadership Digital

Five Ways to Disarm an Angry Mob


Many years ago, as an inexperienced young woman working in corporate benefits, I did not have the skills to give a group of angry employees a presentation on a life insurance benefit that was changing. Since the plan changes had been many months in the making by a team I was leading, my knowledge of the plan was great, but my wisdom in dealing with other’s reactions was limited.

I stood in front of a large auditorium of employees whom I knew had been primed (incorrectly) through the informal grapevine to believe that a change in our life insurance plan meant a takeaway for them.

In reality, our team had worked several months to assure that there would be no takeaways in the plan. We were exchanging parts of the former plan for new, similar parts, at a lower overall employee cost.

There was animosity in the room, and although I stayed calm, my inappropriate fallback position was to become defensive. I’m sad to say that I was not able to pacify the crowd and they left angry.

It was not my finest moment.

I was embarrassed that I didn’t handle this better. However, I’ve had many chances to learn how to deal successfully with anger since then – whether it is in a large group, a smaller group or with a single person.

I may be able to help you to consider what you might do if you are ever in such a spot yourself. If I could have a “do-over” for that original event, here is what I would do:

Brainstorm the questions and practice the answers beforehand: I would brainstorm the questions that the audience may ask, and practice the answers. I may ask a colleague to assist with this in order to surface some of the questions that might be asked. In short, I would be better prepared.

Breathe mindfully: When the audience became agitated, I would become aware of my breathing, pulling in deeper breaths, sending more oxygen into my brain and relaxing my body. This would allow me to do my best thinking.

Listen with compassion: Instead of trying to explain my reasoning and talking over their objections, I would have listened deeply while putting myself in their situation. This would help to understand their objections better allowing me to provide answers customized to their needs, rather than being defensive in order to meet my needs.

Find areas to agree on: Instead of being defensive of my position, I would look for common ground and affirm it with the audience members who were speaking out against it. If I am truly listening instead of waiting for my turn to talk this should not be difficult.

Apologize for misunderstandings: If I thought my words are being misunderstood, I would apologize that I wasn’t clearly stating the situation, re-state it differently and with clarity, and then ask if there were further questions.

We all deal with angry people at some point in our lives. Having some tools in your “anger management” toolkit will help. What tools have you successfully used?


10 Responses to “Five Ways to Disarm an Angry Mob”

  • Great advice, Mary Jo. Common ground is usually the quickest way to build a diplomatic bridge. Mercy, if I had a dime for every “not my finest” moment…

  • Thanks Kevin. Glad to know I’m not alone with plenty of “not my finest” moments in my career. At some point you and I should spend our dimes on a phone call and swap a few stories.

  • I find that asking questions that show you want to understand better and also explaining an issue from another’s point of view helps a lot. Anger is diffused by feeling understood, not be feeling wrongfooted.

  • curious:

    Dear Mary, many thanks for useful advise… How can we control our anger when we are faced in a situation when people exchange offensive body language, meaningul sarcastic smiles with each other to put you down on purposedly??

  • Working Girl, thanks for your additions.

    Curious, I’m afraid an answer to your question cannot be forthcoming in the short space of a blog reply. However, I might ask you (in the spirit of providing you with some food for thought) – Why does it matter to you?

  • curious:

    You are right.. it does not matter but when practically it happens in a situation, I always lose my confidence, especially when I know they are doing it on purposly to put me down:(

  • takingitallin:

    Recently I was “verbally assaulted” during a dinner meeting – foul language and all. I was so startled that I did not respond the way I wish I had. I immediately became defensive, such as you mentioned before, and began trying to placate the other person who really didn’t deserve to be placated. Although I maintained professionalism, I did not illustrate the kind of strength I think a leader should have. I wish I had stood my ground instead of trying to please this person. Articles like yours, Mary Jo, are helpful to those of us who are new to this! Thank you.

  • Hello Taking it all in,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure there will be a universal sigh of community amongst our readers. We’ve all experienced it at some time in our lives.

  • Isabel:

    My “not finest moment” came early in my career in the meetings industry, when I was tossed to the lions at the “help desk” of a painfully poorly organized event. I had almost nothing to do with the organization itself, but was responsible for answering complaints. I had NO IDEA how to do that and thought my job was to solve problems.
    Wrong.

    If I have learned one thing in this business it’s that, a lot of the time, people just want to get the complaint off their chest and hear someone else say “you’re right, that was unfair to you”. Listening to a complaint all the way through is often the single best solution that can be applied.
    Thanks for touching on this issue!

  • How to deal with a hostile audience…

    When you’re facing an angry audience, such as employees who have had their benefits changed, prepare beforehand for possible questions and then practice your answers, Mary Jo Asmus writes. Also, try not to be defensive, but instead try to put yourself…

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Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo
A former executive in a Fortune 100 company, I own and operate a leadership solutions firm called Aspire Collaborative Services. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. I am married, have two daughters, and a dog named Edgar the Leadership Pug who exemplifies the importance of relationships to great leadership.
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