The Emotional Tango: Those are Your Feelings, Not Mine

The dancers in ballroom tango initially move across the floor through the flexing of the lower joints (hip, knee, ankle) while the feet are delayed, then the feet move quickly to catch the body, resulting in snatching or striking action that reflects the staccato nature of this style’s preferred music. Our emotions, like tango steps, can vary widely in timing, speed, and character, and follow no single specific rhythm.

I dare say all of us have been with a person who was expressing anger or another unpleasant emotion. It can be an intense experience, whether the anger seems justified or not. How can you diffuse an angry person?  Do you know what words calm an angry person? Knowing how to deal with angry people in life and in school is a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence. These kinds of people skills build greater confidence in every relationship and situation!

What if you knew how to respond to another’s anger in an effective way? I suspect that your life would be a little calmer and more relaxed. And better yet, what if you could defuse someone’s anger altogether? It can be done—using empathy.

Anger often piggy-backs on multiple frustrations and annoyances. Many times, the angry person is feeling hurt, sometimes powerless—and often they feel like their values are being disrespected or their sense of well-being is threatened. If they feel misunderstood, judged, or made wrong for being angry, their emotions tend to escalate. An angry person is not acting from their logical brain.

The emotional tango

  1. The first step in any emotional tango, especially with anger, is to not take their words and actions personally.
  2. Take a moment to check in with yourself and your own emotions. It’s vital that you know what you’re feeling and whether you can navigate someone else’s strong emotions at that moment. To respond lovingly and firmly to someone who has just used you for target practice requires self-awareness and equanimity. Self-restraint doesn’t just happen; It takes practice. And replacing judgment with curiosity is critical and not always easy in the heat of the moment.
  3. Ask yourself these questions:
    • “Am I upset or feeling overwhelmed with the situation?” If so, take care of yourself and self-calm. The goal when navigating another person’s strong emotions is to be an anchor—first for yourself and then if possible for the other person, who may be having difficulty with their own emotions too. Their angry feelings will dissipate if you can be a useful mirror for them to see themselves more clearly and identify what they need. But if you’re not in control of your own emotions or if you’re unable to process what’s coming out of their mouth next, you will rarely be supportive to them.
    • “Am I feeling grounded enough in myself to be able to hold a safe space for this person’s emotions?” If not, take a couple of breaths and center yourself before responding. Centering means practicing being present to yourself. You’ll get better at it the more you focus on it. Centering can be a quick six-second reconnect with yourself, like a refreshing sip of tea or a dive into an imaginary cool lake. Centering can also take the form of a more extended break to regroup. You can practice regular centering through meditation, yoga, or mindfulness.
    • “Can I be present for this person?” If you’re upset or afraid of their emotional outburst, it may not be a time to take on more. If you’re struggling, don’t try to help someone else. It would be like jumping into a lake to save a drowning person when you’re exhausted or don’t know how to swim. Your first responsibility is to feel secure and connected to yourself, and then, from a grounded place, extend comfort and empathy to the other person. And yes, set a limit for their behavior if you need to—even if they don’t like you setting a boundary.
    • “Can I be present to the person while also being present to my own feelings?” If not, your responses will lack authenticity, and you may end up creating misunderstandings. The result is an unpleasant tango without resolution. However, if you can indeed dance with awareness of your own feelings and also be present to the other person, that person is fortunate to have you there!
  4. Another vital action is to acknowledge the emotion and help the person feel understood. (This is true for your anger, too). Studies show that when an emotion is recognized and identified, it begins to soften and dissipate. “You sound really angry. Tell me more about that.”

It’s common for us to get defensive or react to someone else’s intense emotions. Frequently, we don’t even want to deal with another person’s feelings. And even if we desire to be there for them, we might not know how to respond. It can be especially difficult when a person is feeling unsafe when volatile emotions erupt. Or when we’re also feeling hurt and filled with our own emotions, it’s hard to keep our composure.

Being present to the other person’s anger

Of course, it’s not your job to take on another person’s anger, to be a target of their angst, or to solve their problems. However, if you decide to be present to their anger, below are some possible responses. When it’s necessary to set a boundary for the strong emotions of someone else, these responses help them feel heard while also letting them know you care. Yet there’s still room for you to take care of yourself.

Recognize your own emotions:

  • Realize where you are emotionally before you make yourself available for others.
  • Sometimes strong (or powerful) emotions come up within you as you listen to others.
  • Recognize and name the emotions you are feeling at the moment.
  • Take a moment and acknowledge the emotion.
  • Allow yourself time to quickly assess whether this emotion helps you in supporting the other person.
  • If it does not, allow yourself to let go of it and refocus on them.

The four elements of tango

The basic elements of every Argentine tango dance are the embrace, walking, figures, dancing codes, and the underlying type of music. The basic elements of emotional tango are embrace and identify your own emotions, allow yourself time to assess whether this emotion helps you right now, refocus on the other person, and listen intently with no judgment.

Understanding and using these four basic elements of emotional tango will help you appropriately perceive and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others, without trying to fix their problems, or offer advice, or quell your own discomfort with someone else’s pain.

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Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson is the founder of Circle Dynamics Group and a national leader in training educators in emotional intelligence and the use of genuine listening and curiosity in conversations with students. He has a Master's degree in Human Development.

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