This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.
What do you notice?
You notice someone you care about struggling with anger. Maybe you notice they have increased physical signs when angered, such as a red face, sweating, clenched fist or jaw or rapid breathing. You might also notice they’re restless when angry, resulting in pacing or repetitive movement. Perhaps they appear intimidating; they slam doors, encroach on others’ space or make threats. In conversation, they could display subtle signs, such as empathizing with others that commit violent acts or talking about wanting to end things.
What do you need to understand?
Anger’s a normal human emotion, and everyone experiences it throughout their lives. Anger can be detrimental to our health and relationships when we sustain it for long periods. Anger’s usually a sign something’s wrong and needs to be addressed. It also represents a further underlying emotional state. Typically, anger stems from a feeling of fear, loss or sadness, which activates the fight, flight, or freeze response within the body. When we’re angry, the body reacts physiologically (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, muscle tension or a foggy brain). While anger can be difficult to address with another, it’s important to understand they likely feel like their needs aren’t being met or a change in their lives has created stress and fear. Listening to another’s experience will help to clarify where the anger stems from or help to validate their feelings.
What do you need to consider?
Addressing someone’s anger while they’re angered isn’t a suitable time to clarify these feelings. While it’s important to clarify the feelings of anger in an individual during a calmer period, consider these caveats:
- Never dismiss a threat
- Be prepared with a plan of action when addressing another’s anger – don’t react to it
- Be aware of the way you feel, the situation and whether the conversation’s escalating
Always be ready to disengage if the conversation appears to be moving too fast and if the other person has a limited ability to hear and see what’s actually happening. While addressing another’s anger, be conscientious of framing your understanding of their feelings as possibly being a result of fear or loss in their life.
Engaging in a supportive conversation
Have the right mindset
Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.
Questions to check your mindset:
- What are my assumptions about this situation?
- How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
- What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
- How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?
Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.
Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:
- “I’ve noticed lately that you appear angry more often. Can you help me understand what you’re experiencing?”
Preparing for the response
Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person’s open or not to a discussion.
When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:
Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.
- “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”
If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.
When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:
If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.
The next statement might be:
- “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”
Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.
Continuing the conversation
Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.
Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:
- “I’m hearing that you feel [your needs are not being met, no one is listening to you, stressed about the new changes in your life or fearful]. Is that what I’m hearing?”
Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.
Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:
- “I’m grateful that you shared with me what’s causing your anger. This demonstrates to me great courage.”
Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.
Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:
- “You’ve identified the need to address [feelings of fear, stress or processing a loss], so how can I best support you at this time?”*
- “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that be helpful?”
*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do to create change in the other’s life.
Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.
Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:
- “I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to address to create some change in your life. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”
Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.
To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: