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So Much Anger to Manage!

Maria Simpson’s Two-Minute Leadership Training.

(Read Part 2 here)

Everybody seems to be angry lately, and a lot of people are writing about it.
The Management Tip of the Day from HBR has had two pieces on anger in as many weeks,
“Head Off Your Next Angry Outburst,” Adapted from “Outsmart Your Next Angry Outburst,” by Peter Bregman and
“What to Say When a Conversation Heats Up.” Adapted from, “7 Things to Say When a Conversation Turns Negative,” by Kathleen Kelley Reardon.
Since most of us can’t just walk off our jobs in anger and stay employed, we have to find ways of dealing with it in the moment as well as over the long term. In the short term, being able to use language strategies is the most helpful approach, as it manages the immediate situation and communications. In the long term, finding out why you became so angry is the necessary strategy.
Language is a part of every organization’s culture, and language sets the tone for communications and relationships. Kristof’s article talks about an environment of meanness at current political rallies that seems not only to allow angry outbursts but to encourage them, and that has spread this tolerance for meanness to other environments. In one workplace, the use of very foul language was common, and I found myself falling into that pattern. I don’t know what prompted it, but I was suddenly aware that I didn’t like the way I sounded any more and cleaned up my speech. I then told people how aware I had become of my own language, which made them aware of theirs, and eventually I noticed a general improvement, but I never criticized or complained. You don’t have to adopt language just because others use it, and you can influence the environment with your own behavior.
Reardon focuses on tactics such as reframing and restating (there are seven listed in her article). These are classic mediation approaches and can be very effective when they are used correctly.
To use these approaches effectively, begin by acknowledging the other person’s perspective or feelings and asking questions instead of making statements, not easy things to do when emotion is interfering. Instead of saying, “Surely there’s another way of saying that” when language seems to have been harsh (sounds too parental and accusative to me), acknowledge the other person’s anger first (“I can hear how angry you are”) and then simply restate the sentence in less harsh language (So, the problem seems to stem from . . . Is that accurate?). No blame. This sequence demonstrates effective listening and de-escalation. There are lots of other ways to approach these situations, and tactics have to change to meet the circumstances and the personalities, but asking questions and acknowledging feelings without judging them are common to all situations.
It may take several de-escalation sentences to bring the person to a point where the discussion can become rational again. If someone shouts the he is “furious,” then acknowledge how clear it is that he is “very very angry.” A statement like that will usually get a response of agreement, the first step in the other person’s sense that his feelings are being recognized and respected. The next statement can be one small step lower on the anger scale, “It sounds like that anger has been building . . . “ (not “that really terrible anger . . . ). Often someone will repeat, “Angry? I’m furious!!!” Keep acknowledging the anger and most of the time the anger won’t go away, but the tone will become less harsh and discussion can begin. It takes patience.
And Bill Eddy has a classic set of principles called “BIFF: Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm. I use this guideline all the time and find it immensely helpful in keeping me out of trouble with both written and oral communication. Anger can distract you from your purpose and allow you to say things you will regret, so use these four attributes as a guide for responding. Answer only the question asked with neutral information, and keep the message brief. Not curt, just brief and without frills. Take a friendly, non-hostile tone, and end the message with something indicating that the discussion is ended, at least from your point of view. Offer to answer questions that might arise; do not ask if it’s “OK?,” and don’t end with a hostile comment (“We’re done). The shorter the message delivered in anger, the easier it is to get yourself into trouble by saying too much and in the wrong tone.
But how do you manage anger in the moment when everybody’s waiting to see what you will do? Try this behavioral approach to get control and focus.
1.  Look down at your notes and take a breath. Don’t make eye contact yet. Look like you’re considering something. (You are. You’re considering what to do next.)
2. Internally, acknowledge your anger and deliberately focus on the task at hand. Allow yourself to respond to the anger at the appropriate time.
3. Ask a curious (not challenging) question in a neutral (not angry) tone.
4. Make notes. Focus away from the anger.
5.  Shift your physical position slightly. A physical shift can create a small mental shift as well.
6. Try to remember and apply all the tactics you have learned: BIFF, Restating, Reframing, de-escalating, focusing on the task.
These are short-term suggestions. Eventually, you will have to identify what causes such anger and what you must change to address it in the long-term. That’s next week’s article.
And if you missed my recent article on “Do Organizations Bully? Just go to It’s always fun to see an article reprinted on that site.

Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.

(Read Part 2 here)


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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