You’ve just sat down to a cup of coffee and without warning a torrent of rage is pouring down on your head. You must have ticked someone off, because that someone is red with fury, berating your worth, threatening you with consequences, and really spoiling your break. You would like to ignore all this, but that someone is your manager.

Or maybe it’s your spouse bringing up every wrong thing you’ve done since the day you were born. Or your dad accusing you of embarrassing him with your failures. Or your coach blaming you for blowing the big game. Whoever it is, what’s your strategy?

So here’s advice from someone who knew what he was talking about.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi So what’s your strategy? Here’s advice from someone who knew what he was talking about.had a lot of people screaming at him for most of his life—his in-laws, his chassidically-challenged opponents, even his own colleagues. He was the sort of person that just did what he knew had to be done—a habit many people find very threatening. It got to the point that he was libeled and imprisoned on charges of treason.

Once declared innocent and freed, many of his fans were geared up to taunt those nasty detractors of his. So he wrote them a letter, a real classic, admonishing them to stay low and humble and out of any fights.

At the end of that letter, he cryptically provided three verses from the Book of Proverbs. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, deciphered those verses as a simple formula to turn around even your harshest, meanest and most crazed antagonist.1

And all in just these three simple steps:

Art by Rivka Korf Studio
Art by Rivka Korf Studio

Step One:

“A gentle response turns back rage.” (Proverbs 15:1)

Neuroscience calls it “amygdala hijack.” A little chunk of brain-meat called amygdala has taken over the cockpit dispersing legions of hormones to storm every gland, organ and muscle of the body in a massive coup d’état before the higher brain functions have a chance to kick in. The neocortex is under house arrest and rational thinking is suspended indefinitely.

In common lingo, he’s lost it. And you are the collateral damage.

Yes, your blood is curdling in instinctive defense. Your heart is pumping and ready for the fight. Your mind is shooting out a long list of all the fiery comebacks that will hit where it hurts.

And that’s a very natural, instinctual reaction. When a bear is under attack, it stands up on its hind legs and makes itself look big and terrifying. Well, there’s a bear inside each of us and when it feels threatened it wants to stand tall and important-looking and scream, “Do you know who I am? How dare you attack me like that! Wait till you hear the insults I can shoot back at you! I will destroy you!”

But that’s the last thing you want to do. Because then everyone’s lost it.

Instead, you hold yourself back, wait for a pause (it eventually does have to come, and you really, really don’t want to open your mouth before then) and choose some gentle words to soften the blow.

Something that acknowledges the other guy’s emotions. Something to make it clear you’re not in for a fight. Something totally unexpected. Return artillery-fire with flowers.

Like one of these—softly and sincerely:

“I’m really glad you’re telling me all this.”

“Wow, I had no idea such a mess came of this.”

“Well, it's a good thing we’re discussing this now.”

“You know, you’ve got a good point there!”

“We don’t really have to fight about this. We both really want the same thing. Let’s talk it through.”

Really, it’s more what you don’t say than what you do say. Your interlocutor was fully expecting a full blown confrontation, but you ended the battle before it began.

That makes you a hero. Like the Mishnah says, “Who is mighty? The guy who rules over his own impulse.”

And you did it like a true hero, without anything snide or smart-alecky. You really meant what you’ve said.

Okay, sometimes that’s just too hard.Skip reality for a minute. Instead, pretend you’re having a pleasant conversation with a perfectly calm person who is saying very sensible things. Now respond in kind. So here’s a tip: Skip reality for a minute. Instead, pretend you’re having a pleasant conversation with a perfectly calm person who is saying very sensible things. Now respond in kind.

Of course, you’ll need a few of these sincere comebacks for your slingshot, but eventually the monster will fall to the ground. Because there’s just no fun in fighting with someone who doesn’t fight back. Zero gratification, zero reinforcement, and therefore zero rage.

You’ve got the fire out. But it’s still smoking. The next step is:

Step Two:

“A broken spirit dries up bones.” (Proverbs 17:22)

The screaming has subsided, but that face—that cold, harsh, stony face. It may as well be a skeleton staring at you. Can’t placate a skeleton.

How do you dry up the remains of that anger and get back the living person?

The answer is to make yourself very small.

Yes, this is counter-intuitive and counter-instinctual. You’re under attack—how can you make yourself look weak and vulnerable?

But it works. Become a nobody. No fun being angry at nobody. Even the hardest heart melts before a low and humble spirit.

SoSay something that acknowledges this guy’s right to be enraged without saying you’re wrong when you’re not. In other words, admit that you’re human: make yourself real small by saying something that makes real sense. Something that acknowledges this guy’s right to be enraged without making yourself into a total idiot or saying you’re wrong when you’re not. In other words, admit that you’re human:

“Look, we all make mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life. That’s why we have to talk with each other.”

“The last thing I want to do is get in the way. I know I’m not at top gear all the time, but I really don’t want to mess things up.”

“I really didn’t know this bothered you so much. Why should things done by just another guy like me mean anything to you?.”

He's melting. But you're still not ready to talk it out. For that you need more than an absence of anger. For that you need some sort of affinity to one another. For that you need…

Step Three:

“As water reflects a face, so a person’s heart reflects that of another.” (Proverbs 27:19)

It’s both one of our weakest points and one of our most redeeming qualities: The imitation response. From the earliest days of life, we learn to throw back at others what they throw at us. Take a jab at someone and get ready for the jab coming back your way. Show a smile and it’s as though you’re almost forcing the other guy to smile back.

Yes, it can be hard to throw that initial smile. It helps to really like the other guy. And there’s got to be something there you really do like. Even nasty people have some redeeming qualities—and maybe this guy isn’t quite the nastiest of them all. Hey, maybe it’s your spouse, and there was a reason you got married in the first place.

So find that. Focus on it. Focus hard, and forget all the rest.

As As soon as you can awaken some good thoughts about this person in your heart, his or her heart will begin to reflect it.soon as you can awaken some good thoughts about this person in your heart, his or her heart will begin to reflect it. Especially if you can show those good feelings in your words and in your expression, it will all be mirrored back “as water reflects a face.” It’s guaranteed by King Solomon and the Torah.

Now you can pretend you were just having a delightful conversation with this person who you really like. Imagine someone just cracked a joke, and it was actually funny. And you laughed.

Now smile.

There’s a smile coming back your way.

Practice Makes Perfect

Roll with the punches. Swallow your pride and return bullets with flowers. Lie low and humble. Ponder what you like about this person. And then defuse the whole situation with a smile.

Rehearse it a few times in your mind. Give it a try (opportunities abound) and then write a reader comment to tell us all how it worked for you.