A Practical Skill for Defusing Anger

Anger is a normal (and often necessary) emotion.

But when tempers flare and rage ensues, our clients’ relationships suffer, their stress levels skyrocket, and reactivity simply takes over.

So how can people shift out of anger once the fuse is lit?

In the video below, Marsha Linehan, PhD will share a practical skill to help clients defuse anger before it escalates beyond control.

Take a look – it’s about 2 ½ minutes.

Marsha’s strategy is practical, it’s simple, and it’s something clients can use right away, in almost any situation where anger threatens to boil over.

This video was taken from the Next Level Practitioner training program where members receive a daily video like this from one of the top 25 experts in our field. That program is not open for new members right now, but if you want to be on a waiting list in case it opens up, please click here.

Now we’d like to hear from you. What have you found to be effective in working with a client’s anger?

Please leave a comment below.

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82 Comments

  1. Trish Johnson says:

    I may use mental skills – take a step back, acknowledge the feeling, even welcome it, to give space to your brain.
    Also body skills such as breath focus, hand on your heart etc.
    I really like this simple bodily gesture, and can think of some clients who could really use this straightaway.
    Thank you.

  2. Jan Newman MD says:

    I follow teachings of 2 Buddhist/yogic schools on this:
    1) Acknowledge that you are angry. Drop the object of your anger and focus on the feeling as you focus on the feeling it will dissapate. Then you can deal with the situation as is required. This requires repeated practice until it becomes habit. If needed you can act angry, but without your personal emotions commanding the situation.
    2) Embrass your anger as if it is your baby. “My little anger I am sorry things didn’t go your way…” This one has a self-compassion element.
    Both have an increased awareness aspect.

  3. LYNN GOOLD says:

    so practical! Thank you

  4. I notice it and embrace it lovingly or mindfully with my attention and it allows it to be and pass. If my anger is really strong it may take longer and I may need to spend time with myself to understand and emphasize with myself and my needs that were not met to deescalate my anger. Bringing self understanding helps when my anger is strong or persistent and opens my heart and a feeling o self compassion.

  5. Zoe says:
  6. I tried have now tried this with clients who report that it defused the anger when they were thinking about an anger episode. Then I had them think of other episodes and watch me make willing hands without doing it themselves. This also had a calming effect. I tried this inspired by recently-watched deescalation tutorial videos. I recognized after watching Dr. Linehan that the deescalation trainers approached agitated patents with willing hands, sometimes keeping them up and in front of them the whole conversation. So willing hands may also be a resource for family members of an anger-prone person.

  7. I believe that the brain needs 10 seconds to allow the frontal lobe to reconnect and allow our executive functions to kick in, therefore anything that distracts us from our anger for those 10 seconds can work. The old adage of count to 10 or doing the willing hands can provide this distraction.

  8. Pauline says:

    I find it very interesting as we use deep breathing as a way to calm oneself down, this practical skill of defusing anger goes a big step as client is more easy and willing to try this. This is because client does not have to do much but just putting their hands out and down.
    I definitely will try this with my clients.

  9. Anne says:

    I was already angry at the time I read the post and was amazed to experience how the body works so well in conjunction with emotions. Those “willing hands” sent a message that totally calmed me to the point I was able re-enter the conversation, have a very good discussion and not experience anger. Tried it the next day to avert agitation and it worked again. I’m teaching this and walking around with “willing hands” – my amygdala, hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands are thanking me already……..!!!!
    I’m thanking Dr. Linehan!

  10. Paula says:

    This is an easy and quick way to help children with their anger issues. Thanks for sharing

  11. sam says:

    Thank you for the video-very useful skill

  12. Paula Reeves says:

    How does Martha frame the concept “willing Hands? P.Reeves

  13. J. Danielson says:

    Finally, something so simple that even angry people can learn to remember it under pressure. It feels like acceptance and surrender. Also reminds me of Hakomi and “riding the rapids,” in which a part is passionately enraged and railing on for usually not more than 5-10 minutes. So, I see that it works both ways–when we’re angry or when faced with angry others. Thank you so much Dr. Linehan!

  14. Ruth and Marsha, Thanks for this short and insightful video. I practice Tai-Chi and one of the first moves we learn is to bend-knees slightly, so the person feels grounded. Then we start taking deep-breaths and along with this deep-breath we start raising our hands very slowly, and we breath-in with palms open and fingers extended out. And as we exhale – the hands go down slowly, palms open, and end up next to our bodies, fingers extended yet relaxed. I teach this to many of my clients and they respond well to this slow meditative breath and movement. This “Willing-Hands” exercise reminds me of this Tai-Chi step because when hands are open and relaxed, the elbows, shoulders, and neck also relax, thus making it easier to take deep breaths, which cleanse the mind of negative thoughts. Also, the movement of Willing-Hands looks as if a person is ready to receive a gift, and that gift is reduced anger and becoming calmer. I will add the Willing-Hands as my gift to my clients.

  15. Jean says:

    Interesting way of reducing anger. The method of counting to 10 slowly and delibetately can also help in producing calmess when a client is angry. This engages the brain and other parts of the body.

  16. Very interesting . I shall try this with my angry clients.
    I teach my clients to shake their anger out, literally shaking the adrenaline out of their whole body and then hugggibg themselves to release oxytocin in an attempt to rebalance the stress hormones and create equilibrium. It’s very good for anxiety too.

    However it’s not always convenient in public places to carry out this strategy. So Marsha’s strategy I will certainly use myself and pass on to my clients.

    Thank you !
    Joanne Freeman

  17. Thank you Marsha, and Thank you Ruth for bringing us to this video. I am going to use this with a young man who is plagued by anxiety and severe panic response, which is equal to extreme and unbridled anger. In these situations the anger doesn’t well up and build to a climax; it is a nano-second response to sensory input of noise on the street, or a perceived look from a person as they pass, and and immediatly it is of flood gates or damn bursting proportion… I will try to teach this, but Marsha did mention how you might engage a person to prepare – and in a case such as this there is no ‘situation assessment’ phase.
    It is a spiritual exercise, and perhaps to ask a person to begin the day with deep breathing by an open window, listening to the birds, or the wind and rain, with Willing Hands beside them, to begin to feel the benefit in a non threat situation, and for this young man to begin his walking outside in the Willing Hands position! Buona Pasqua! CM

  18. Yes sounds useful. Interested to see how it works.

  19. Dahna Berkson says:

    Very interesting!
    I have a client who’s primary issue is anger…I will try this! Athabjs tiu Marsha!
    Dahna

    • Dahna Berkson says:

      I meant thank you Marsha! But couldn’t see the text lol

  20. Joanne Messier says:

    I found this Marsha’s suggested strategy of the willing hands to be so simple and hopefully effective to help diffuse a client’s or anyone’s anger. It would have been nice to see an actual video of an angry person employing this technique and to watch how effective actually was.

  21. Marie Winfield says:

    I found this extremely interesting and tried it out as I was watching the video. I wasn’t angry at the time but experienced a high level of calm by assuming the positions. I will experiment with this in sessions with my clients if they go into overwhelm or who suffer with anxiety/panic and ask if it is helpful. Thank you so much for this.

    Warm Regards

    marie Winfield

  22. Teya Flaster says:

    Re: Wiling Hands; the mind-body connection is effectively dealt with in this simple, effective way. But there are moments when this gesture; “willing hands” is not possible eg. while driving. In those cases, I suggest learning to practice patience, which is not easy, but with a bit of encouragement, someone can be reminded that being angry at the “bad driver” gets us nowhere. What helps? Remembering there will always be someone or something that gets in our way. Living Life on Life’s terms, i guess.

    • Joy Hughes says:

      Hi Teya! Deep breathing while driving is a good technique. Just don’t close your eyes!!

  23. Thank you Ruth and Marsha. Amazing but I can see the power of that technique in accessing willingness immediately. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Karen Swenson says:

    First of all I will try it for mysef before I recommend it.
    Thanks.
    Very simple and straightforward.
    Karen

  25. Barbara says:

    Thank you for sharing this information……..dealing with anger, your own or someone else’s can often feel very scary.

  26. Michael Lederman says:

    In yoga, that would be an opened handed lotus pose!

  27. Mel Imas says:

    Sometimes asking the person to share( with the counselor) what they would really like to say to the person they are angry at – is very cathartic. After this is expressed and spoken about the individual can get a new perspective on their attitude and behavior.

  28. Tamara, Student, Canada says:

    I would love to know why the posture of Willing Hands works! What does it change neurologically or in any other way that calms the anger?

    • Pat Maurer says:

      Tamara, Dr. Amy Cuddy at Harvard does very accessible presentations about how our body language shapes our internal perceptions. :-) This research has been going on for decades; and you’ve probably used some of the techniques without even realizing it–changing your posture to give you confidence, or swinging your arms to raise your energy. Or noticed how trudging around in bedroom slippers with your eyes on the floor makes you feel even more sad and weary? Our mind takes cues from our body and obliges with biochemical changes to create what we’ve–consciously or unconsciously–chosen.

  29. Judith says:

    Love it! Thank you. Love your work. Thank you so much for sharing your personal story also. I’ve done the DBT course. It was so wonderful to be a student of DBT and then learn that the ‘DBT expert’ has seriously done all the work herself! Once I found that out, I was no longer wondering why your course was so effective. The best teachers always come from a deep inner knowing and experience.

    Again, many thanks
    Judith

  30. Sandy Gartin says:

    This is intriguing but unclear. If a person is standing up and becoming angry they can’t put willing hands next to (or on??) their knees. Perhaps this was to just tweek interest in learning more but it was extremely unclear. I’m tweeked!

  31. Peter says:

    How profoundly simple and elegant. Thank you!

  32. Peter says:

    How profoundly and simply elegant. Thank you!

  33. Ela says:

    Mindful breathing exercise works pretty good. It usually works within three to five minutes.
    The willing hands posture can be easily integrated to the breathing exercise or of course done by itself.
    Thank you for this great tip.

  34. Marian Lancaster, Art Therapist, Kentucky, US says:

    I like this and look forward to trying it with clients (maybe myself as well). ;-)
    Also will teach it to my grandchildren. One is struggling with anger about bullying she experienced recently. Action was taken to protect her, but she is still feeling angry and other methods to discharge her anger haven’t helped. Hopefully this technique will give her something easy and effective to try.
    Thanks for sharing!

  35. Thank you, Marsha and Ruth. Having short, “portable,” easy to do actions are wonderful additions to a person’s bucket of coping tools. Positive practice before events occur help to re-program responses for use when they are needed.

  36. Sadie Thornhill says:

    I have a very angry client coming to see me in a few days. I am going to teach him willing hands, if he identifies that anger is a problem. Thank you for sharing this wonderful skill!

  37. SandyW says:

    I figured this out on my own with a twist. What I learned from my parents – getting angry and spanking for a violation I did not know I did – I learned did not work with my first born. I had learned self-hypnosis using a relaxation induction, so I decided to imagine my child (and saw an image of his head) just before I would loose my temper. As a result, what I noticed as soon as the felt sense of anger rising started I noticed my hands would start to make a fist, his face would appear in my mind’s eye and my hands instantly relaxed and the anger would miraculously drain away. I appreciate the naming of willing hands – also called open to receive.

  38. Elizabeth says:

    This is so sweet. Thank you for your Willing Hands exercise. You are appreciated.

    Elizabeth Agnese, M.A.

  39. Hi Ruth,

    Another provocative one! This corresponds to the Listening Posture taught in Wendy Palmer’s Conscious Embodiment work, the opposite of which is “hands up” which pretty much everyone does when they perceive that their image of themselves or their script for a situation is being questioned or overruled (from Evolution Access work which draws on Domestic Violence prevention concepts combined with somatic coaching and linguistic awareness as part of the intervention.) Anger as an excess of emotion is an interesting description. In the stroke recovery lexicon- excessive emotion such as anger is considered a biological phenomenon in that it actually is an excess of limbic system protective response to perceived threat and the subconscious autonomic nervous system’s set of protocol’s – adrenaline loading/aggression response activated.

    So when we can ‘unwire’ the notion of our script being enforceable (which I see as a spiritual issue as much as anything- to make Divine Guidance/our human ability to tap into the Intelligence in the space the “boss” of every situation) from our threat response we can actually be free of being constantly triggered into that limbic response in the first place- which is way better for the body, immune function- everything! When we can recognize domination going on for what it is and make choices about how far we will comply with systems of domination that an also be a way to diffuse the trigger through empowering ourselves in the choices we do have – Jeanne D’Arc was willing to burn to not comply but most people are not.

    i have years of practicing to intervene using this and many other somatic and spiritual interventions post TBI with serious rage issues as a result of multiple brain and assault traumas, and my view is that this is a lightweight intervention that may not work for limbically injured folks (trauma survivors) without them doing numerous repetitions to retrain their system in a safe situation, and some other understandings established about the nature of fear, domination and the limbic system. And, different things work for different systems so it is certainly worth a try.

    My experience is that one needs to consciously wire in the alternative response under mild pressure so that when there is big pressure the system has already practiced/wired the alternative intervening response in.

    I think the notion of “excessive” is also flawed- who says what is excessive? What people are asked to be calm about in this society is what is excessive in my view. And anger is separative- and there are situations that separating from is healthy to do!

    I think it is beneficial to be able to break it down to the point of fulfilling our own docket of contribution on the planet and not be taken over by it, very empowering to be able to see it for what it really is- a threat response designed to save my life that i have the power and the practie level to stop, examine and intervene in. Calling it excessive without taking the gift of the information – including if the information is that my image feels threatened, or that I actually am in need of resetting boundaries in some way to take care of myself or my life or my dignity in a situation, misses the mark from my perspective. My questions are – Why do we maintain a society where people are constantly being dominated financially, through gender role domination, through access to basic human needs being denied and co-opted for profit, where we have winner take all and losers can just go be homeless refugees someplace else? How do we change that? Starting with being more free of our automatic threat responses is a terrific place to start I think. Thanks for the post!

    • Joan says:

      I really like your comprehensive post!

    • Tamara, Student, Canada says:

      Julia — thank you for your comments. Excellent points. i agree about your point re: what is excessive and that often what we people are asked to accept is excessive and crosses healthy boundaries. And yes, if we can practice something like Willing Hands under milder pressures, we are better prepared to handle bigger pressures. I appreciate that you took the time to make these valuable additions to the content offered in the video.

    • Maryrose says:

      Well said.

  40. I have a different take on the idea of anger. It’s coming up to say something is out of balance so rather than just shut it down too quickly, I would use EFT tapping to ask where is it holding, and what is the message?

  41. I use a couple of yoga techniques that can be done very subtly in the midst of an event. A client with a 35 year history of addiction and a major criminal was able to master his anger successfully with these.

    I also have them mindfully think of using the anger as a power to skillfully guide towards an needed outcome — and not to have it driving them towards destruction.

    Also useful is Marshall Rosenthal (Non Violent Communication) book “The Surprising Purpose of Anger”

  42. San Fredricks says:

    Fun interesting post . Yes anger is a great emotion.
    And it’s good when you can acknowledge reduce it to a level where one can respond and instead of react … going to try this cool gesture. I love the open hands .
    A healing.

    I disagree with the person below who thinks anger is not a good emotion.
    It seems important. Ignoring and not acknowledging the anger can produce more undesirable outcomes.

    This is a cool strategy

  43. Sarah Baker says:

    What a wonderful tip – thank you. I normally do some psycho-education with clients re the different presentations of anger, and the difference between anger and rage. Then I get them to be very specific about the ‘what, why, when, with whom, and how’ of their anger in a ‘problem’ situation. Then we can explore different contained ways of releasing the anger (a ‘courtroom’ scene, empty chair dialogue, letter-writing, energy release methods etc)

  44. Elspeth says:

    Very interesting. I try to gain a space by breathing, but even that can be hard – and I can end up doing heavy breathing – not so helpful. I can’t wait to try this change of physical posture – just hope I remember in the moment. I will definitely offer it to others and see how it works for them too. Thank you for these great tools

  45. lesley-ann says:

    Interesting and simple. Easy to do anywhere. Look forward to giving it a try. Thank you

  46. The first step is really “dropping into your breath” and recognizing you are angry, the breath is a key in minimizing anger as it changes with anger and once you get control of your breath the anger subsides.

  47. doris says:

    Great timing, it’s just what I needed, thank you for posting this!!!

  48. Raven says:

    I’ll try it
    I’m a visual learner. I hope this is taken as input not insult.
    Marsha, I found myself distracted by your collar being partially tucked in, the clutter in the background.
    Perhaps sit where the camera is just on you, not the whole room?

    Thank you for the time you took to teach us.
    Always appreciated.

    Cheers

  49. Social psychologist Brad J. Bushman has investigated rage.
    Diversion of the subject reduces the amount of anger.
    Ruminating or boxing with a ball while thinking that that is the subject, cultivates the anger.
    Thinking of or doing something or remembering a positive emotion (love, happiness, humor) that is not compatible with agression does melt the anger. Mindful breathing, more out than in,also. Think of something else. Read an interesting book. Listen to a music/song with slow time/measure and high tone/pitch.

  50. Fran Englander says:

    Worth trying and teaching. Obviously willing hands do not allow for clenching fists….

  51. Tobias Schreiber says:

    Nice brief intervention and skill that people can integrate into their daily lives.

  52. Debbie Davis says:

    Cool! I will use this with clients who are willing to see anger as a problem.

    Thank you!

    • San Fredricks says:

      Anger is not the problem. If you avoid the shadow parts: you will have worse results.

      Processing the anger and using different techniques: acknowledging and some of he great suggestions will allow us to respond rather than react ..

  53. AnnaMaria Kamstra says:

    Thank you! most helpful. I use 4/7 breathing or tapping. Understanding anger (first info diagram) is a must before you can expect a client to do something else than being angry.

  54. Mira Carroll says:

    Wow! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can hardly wait to feel angry so I can test the “Willing Hands” technique! Thank you.

  55. I have found that some people need at times to express anger safely and don’t have a place to do it. Especially men. Anger enables me to get in touch with true power and can cut through the crap. Of course if it is constant and just acted out everywhere it is very dangerous. I have found that in the right space using big cardboard boxes and inviting someone to do to the boxes what was done to them can be very effective in this expression of anger. This is only part of the work though. Techniques like willing hands can help later when the need to express is less. Understanding and feeling the hurt and the request under the anger is also necessary. Thankyou for your work and dedication.

    • San Fredricks says:

      Charlie: I like the way you are trying to process and then use tools

      Thank you

    • Kathryn Ladd says:

      What kind of boxes and what is done to them? I was told to have a person save paper towel tubes. Use them to whack against hard surface like the edge of a dryer…so it makes NOISE and it disintigrates.

  56. Ann Stern says:

    Many years ago I came across two ideas for reducing anger during road rage. At that time I did flash red hot anger when I was cut off in traffic and so I tried each of two ideas to stop that anger. They both worked like miracles! The first idea is to use a cartoon voice to talk about what just happened in traffic. In Elmer Fudd voice I would say out loud, “Crazy red truck just pulled right in front of me”. Doing that just totally ended the build up of anger. This book explained that the silly voice stopped at least one chemical needed to make anger. The other idea was to picture a small child waiting and crying outside a building. The very impolite driver who was doing some dangerous traffic move you picture as the parent running late to pick up that child. Somehow just imagining that fear and hurry of the pretend parent also cut the anger at the roots. I never again felt road rage using those two techniques.

  57. Jnet says:

    Great, thank you, I will practice this myself.

    • San Fredricks says:

      Love that; U weren’t denying the anger : seems like you were redirecting / and channeling it Going to remember this one: it’s fun..

  58. Johanna Bergerman says:

    love the idea of a practice of willing hands; will use it at the mothers centre where I work

  59. Linda says:

    What I have found effective is inviting a client to imagine the felt sense of completing a fight response, and having them notice the felt sense of satisfaction and ease that occurs after. Basic SE!
    This was a great video though. I will definitely try it. Thanks!

  60. Corinne says:

    Very interesting. Thanks!

  61. DM says:

    Really helpful, thank you.

  62. Lena says:

    It IS simple. It’s the posture of prayer, too. Thank you for sharing this.

  63. JoAnn says:

    This is simply awesome!! thank you

  64. Francesca says:

    Why is it calk d Willing Hands?

  65. Dave Kent says:

    I am not a practitioner, I am a person who’s wife has had dementia for 18 years, the last two of which have been in a memory care center. However, the suggestions coming through people like Marsha and Ruth are definitely helpful. Thank you, Dave.

  66. Sandy Olson says:

    Great idea!

  67. Marion houghton says:

    I appreciate this suggestion for working with anger. Recently I sat with a wife whose husband becomes enraged at the smallest perceived verbal slight. I felt a sense of powerlessness to have any impact on the situation. I am going to try “willing hands” with him.

  68. Neat and easy idea. Thanks!

  69. Wonderful! I use tapping on whatever acupressure point is convenient. It’s amazing how terrific these strategies are!

  70. Thank you! I use tapping on whatever acupressure point is convenient. It is amazing how well these strategies work!

  71. Thanks for sharing! It’s very useful!

  72. Nancy Pinzon says:

    Excellent! Thanks.

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