Last week I talked about some ways to manage anger, focusing on language and behavioral techniques. I mentioned an article by Reardon, which focuses on several common mediation techniques such as rephrasing and summarizing, and on a technique from Bill Eddy called BIFF: Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm. (“What to Say When a Conversation Heats Up.” Adapted from, “7 Things to Say When a Conversation Turns Negative,” by Kathleen Kelley Reardon)
However, I was reminded by Joe Maizlish that we can know all the skills of anger management, and even its causes, and yet fail to use those skills when things heat up. As he quoted another writer, “Anger management works – if you’re not angry.”
When our own emotions are involved, all our skills can get lost in the emotional flood, so perhaps the real goal is to understand what generates it, which of course, is different for each of us. If you are managing staff members who are often angry or have angry outbursts, then keeping this idea in mind will be helpful in not assuming their anger is generated by the same reasons yours might be. It may be generated by something you can’t even imagine.
One way to avoid or mitigate our own anger is to avoid the circumstances that generate it, thereby removing the need to express it.
But how do you figure out what the source of anger is?
I used a short questionnaire with management students to help them identify sources of their own anger. The questions included:
- Is there a person who always makes you angry?
- Does that person’s behavior, habits, language or treatment of you represent someone else who treated you badly?
- Is there a situation that usually makes you anxious or angry?
- What situation does the current situation represent?
After completing the questionnaire, one student said that he was about to ask for a raise when he was told he might be let go, a complete surprise to him. He wanted to fight that decision, but thought about the answers to the questions. He was the youngest of four brothers, and his three older brothers bullied him unmercifully. In his current job he had to work with three more senior men who also bullied him. He hated being with them every day and avoided them, which is what he did with his brothers. Instead of being angry and fighting the decision, he quit his job to find a more welcoming and less stressful environment. It took guts, and I admired his decision – and his insight.
So, avoiding anger-generating situations is a first and strategic step to managing your own anger.
Anther step is to think strategically about what you want to accomplish in the situation or conversation. Shifting gears will help you focus on a desired outcome instead of staying in the highly emotional state. You will still be angry, but you can manage it more easily by keeping a more important goal in mind.
Peter Bregman suggests asking yourself a few questions before sending off an angry email, and the questions apply to conversations as well.
- What outcome/goal do I want?
- What should I communicate? What is most important? It may not be your anger.
- When should I communicate?
“Head Off Your Next Angry Outburst,” Adapted from “Outsmart Your Next Angry Outburst,” by Peter Bregman.
Appropriately stating your own feelings can help, too. Maybe the other person doesn’t really know how you feel or has made inaccurate assumptions about how something has affected you.
For example, in family situations, many times one family member doesn’t understand the complexity of the situation for another family member, even though they face the same situation. It is often a single sibling who bears the responsibility for care of elderly parents. The sibling with the responsibility holds in the feelings of worry about care and deteriorating health, increasing financial problems, the lack of support from others, and the real effects of the responsibility on his or her own life. Or a parent might want to let an adult child know that a decision seems wrong but does not want to interfere or state that opinion inappropriately, and instead says nothing. I know we try to manage our anger, try not to reprimand or alienate others, but at some point being completely honest, including about your own anger, is the only way to get the message across.
The strategy for these conversations is to:
- prepare carefully for a conversation that occurs when both parties are not in heightened emotional states;
- make a list of the one or two points you want to make (or one point with a few reasons) and stay focused on them (or else your conversation becomes a lecture);
- write out and try out language that begins to feel comfortable;
- open with a neutral statement rather than an accusation and an explanation of the purpose of the conversation;
- maintain a neutral tone of voice;
- acknowledge the the other person’s feelings and responses while still staying focused on your own goals.
If the conversation goes sideways, acknowledge the other point and then try something like, “I know that is important and we can discuss that later (writing it down as you say this) but right now I’d like to focus on . . .“ Be sure to mention areas of agreement: “I know we both want to . . .”
I plan for a difficult conversation by writing out the two or three points I want to make in the language I want to use, language that is not confrontational and that I have spoken out loud to hear what it sounds like in my own voice and inflection. I also write out the standard language I will use for bringing the focus of the conversation back to the main point. If the conversation is really important, these steps are required.
If you reach a breaking point, you can be angry, express anger, and be really clear about it without shouting, but it does take effort and even practice. The key is to be very focused, very deliberate, and very clear, so it’s important to have those conversational goals clearly in mind. If the conversation becomes overwhelming, take a break. There is nothing wrong in saying someth9ing like, “I’m feeling really stressed right now, so I need to take a break.”
And when you have private time, get help in figuring out why you were so angry. If it takes a coach or a therapist, then use those resources as well. Anger takes an enormous amount of energy and eats you up inside. Learn the appropriate way to express and manage it, or how to let it go altogether.
Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.