Red-faced, spittle flying, veins popping, eyes protruding, fists clenched—you know him. He’s Angry Man. He’s your boss, co-worker or your employee. From a distance, he’s amusing in a gnomish way. But, when he’s in your face, Angry Man can be contagious. For the final installment of the Centered Leader Series, I’ll talk about how to manage difficult people like Angry Man by using the Aikido practice called blending.

Managing Difficult People

It’s challenging to stay calm when Angry Man is shouting in your face. In the previous installments of the Centered Leader Series I talked about centering, or breathing deeply and finding your core. Then I talked about extending, or thinking positive thoughts and extending goodwill towards the person across from you. Extending is a way to change your mind towards an opponent and avoid being triggered into defensive anger in response.

I like what Eric Barker, in his blog Barking up the Wrong Tree writes about anger management. He uses the term reappraisal in his How to Get Rid of Anger post, citing scientific studies that make a case for this technique. Reappraisal, he writes, is “When you change your beliefs about a situation, [or person] your brain changes the emotions you feel.” It can be as simple as thinking “they are just having a bad day,” he writes.

Extending is reappraising, or thinking in a positive way about an aggressor rather than repressing your own anger. Extending takes reappraising one step further, in that not only do you think positively towards that person, you also extend your positive thoughts and feelings towards that person.

Techniques for De-escalating Conflict

At this point, you may feel calm, but Angry Man isn’t. Now what do you do?

The experts at managing angry people are hands-down the FBI. In a hostage crisis, they de-escalate the situation and get an adrenaline filled kidnapper to talk like a reasonable person. Chris Voss is an ex-FBI hostage negotiator and Georgetown University professor who applies his skills to corporate situations. In his blog on BlackSwanLtd.com, Voss says that the FBI uses active listening as the first step in hostage negotiation, to determine the kidnapper’s goals. For the next step, Voss uses a poker game analogy, “If you are so focused on what you have, then you will miss the opportunity to adjust based on what the other players are doing.” [Italics added for emphasis]

Adjusting is the point at which you determine your opponent’s strategy and revise your own accordingly. If you can’t be nimble and adjust to the play, you’ll lose.

Self-Defense and Aikido Blending

The Aikido technique called blending is similar to adjusting. It is synchronizing with the flow of energy from your counterpart (their strategy) and using that same energy to achieve your own goal, rather than fighting it, which only escalates the anger. Click on the YouTube video below for a brief Aikido blending demonstration from one of my workshops:

In a work situation, instead of immediately getting defensive when approached by Angry Man, you center yourself, enter into the conflict, extend goodwill towards him, and start actively listening. Angry Man has already assumed that you won’t listen to him, so he plans to fight to get his point across. If you remain calm and engage Angry Man, indicating a desire to understand and help him and unity of purpose, he won’t need his anger anymore. Once he is convinced your goals are blended, he will drop his guard. Now you’ve gained the upper hand and can subtlety re-direct the conversation in order to achieve your goal.

Fighting is futile unless you can out-yell the Angry Man. Blending is soft power, in that you can still get your point across, but in a kinder, gentler way. If you’re in a confrontation or conflict at work, use the Aikido techniques: centering, extending, entering and finally, blending. Aikido can help you de-escalate conflict and manage difficult people, all while achieving your own goals as a centered leader.