Proven Ways to De-escalate Anger in the Workplace
Proven Ways to De-escalate Anger at Work
Dr. John Schinnerer
‘Pardon me, Sally’, I said, ‘there is a small mistake in this report.’ My coworker, a woman twenty years my elder, reacted with fury, ‘Who are you? Mr. Perfect?! This report is fine! Why don’t you take that report and show it to someone who cares!’ After what seemed like five minutes of venting, she snatched the papers from my hand and stormed off.
While this took place nearly twenty years ago, I remember it vividly as it was an powerful lesson that anger of coworkers is not always directed at the right person, to the proper degree and in the best manner. More often, the anger of coworkers, customers and supervisors is misdirected at people who had no hand in creating the anger-inducing situation.
So how do you best respond when someone else’s anger ramps up at the workplace?
The ability to de-escalate the anger of others is a critical political and emotional ability necessary for long-term success. As an executive coach, I have seen and heard about anger taking on a life of its own, destroying relationships and derailing careers. While we do our best to act the part of rational, reasonable business people, the truth is that we are also emotional animals at times.
The Emotional vs. Rational Brain
The emotional brain (primarily the limbic system) has been in existence in human beings for roughly 5 to 10 million years. On the other hand, the rational, thinking brain (the cortex) has only been around for approximately 50,000 to 1 million years. So the emotional brain is much older than the rational brain.
The emotional brain has been through many revisions and is nearly perfect in its ability to keep us safe and act as a general guidance system (approach vs. avoidance). The emotional brain has the ability to hijack the rational brain when something comes between you and your goal (leading to anger) or when danger is sensed (leading to fear).
On the other hand, the rational brain is still in the earliest stages of revision on an evolutionary scale. It is prone to mistakes in thinking, and can be overpowered by the emotional brain in a matter of a third of a second.
All of us are simultaneously rational and emotional. So anger is inevitable when you have groups of people who care passionately about their companies, their jobs, their families, and a wide assortment of individual, team and corporate goals. As one person’s goals come into conflict with other’s, anger often follows.
Anger exists on a spectrum. Think of the intensity of anger along a 1 – 10 scale where 1 is calm and 10 is enraged. This is a great starting point for creating more specificity when you talk about anger (or any other emotion).
Top Ways to Calm Anger at the Office
1. The first step to take when someone is angry is to do a body scan within your own body. This is simply a mental scan of your body to monitor your own anger level, muscle tension and internal dialogue. If your anger gets above a 5 on the anger scale, tell the person that you are getting upset and ask them to continue the conversation later (after you’ve calmed down). In my work helping executives with anger, I’ve found that anytime you get above a 5 on the anger scale, hurtful words are spoken and destructive acts are committed. It becomes highly difficult to manage yourself when your anger level is above a 5 and it becomes nearly impossible to help another person manage his or her anger if your anger flares.
2. Understand that anger is a common strategy some people use to get their needs met. I call the use of negative emotions to intimidate others into submission ‘emotional bullying.’ Keep that phr
ase in the back of your mind and check if emotional bullying is taking place in your office. If so, calmly tell the other person that they cannot use emotions to get what they want. Or you can choose to tell them that you are happy to discuss the situation more when they have calmed down.
3. Breathe deeply. Studies show that deep breathing reduces the intensity of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and resentment. Negative emotions lock the body into certain patterns of movement and thinking. For instance, anger locks you into shallow breathing, tightened muscles, and negative thoughts which reinforce your anger. Deep breathing into your belly is the most important step in unlocking anger. As you breathe in count to 6, hold the breath in for 2 seconds, then breathe out for 6 seconds. Notice how you begin to relax as you do this for one minute, thereby activating the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., the rest and digest response).
4. Avoid criticizing or blaming the angry person. Criticism, blame and judgment are highly likely to heighten the intensity of the anger. Watch out for labels and name-calling (even in your own head).
5. Try to find common ground between your experiences and the focus of their anger. There is usually a tiny bit of truth in angry statements. Your job is to seek out that truth and magnify it. You can relate to their experience and let them know, ‘If I were in your situation, I’d be upset too. Let me see what I can do to help you make this better.’
6. Tune in to early warning signs. These can tip you off that a coworker is getting progressively angry. It’s powerful to know someone is ready to go volcanic before they actually lose their temper. There are physiological indicators of anger for which you can look. These include tight jaw, furrowed brow, upper lip curled up on one side (i.e., a snarl of disgust), muscle tension in shoulders, narrowed eyes, lips firmly pressed together, and shallow breathing. Beyond that, you can look for deviations from normal behavior patterns. For instance, when a coworker who is usually boisterous and outgoing turns silent and withdraws, it may be a red flag for anger. When you notice such changes in people, simply call attention to them gently to diffuse them before they erupt. For instance, ‘Hey Bob, you have become quiet all of a sudden. What’s going on?’ or ‘Miranda, you appear to have a slightly annoyed expression. Is there anything you would like to add?’
7. If you cannot prevent the angry party from exploding, there are several approaches of you can take. These are active listening, apologizing, acknowledging their feelings, and offering to make an attempt to rectify the situation.
8. Active listening is the process of genuinely and sincerely attempting to truly hear what it is the angry party is trying to convey. It involves listening at several different levels simultaneously including
a. the text (interpreting the words they are speaking to you),
b. the subtext (what is not being said yet is still part of the problem),
c. the emotional (which emotions are involved in the anger such as resentment, disappointment, fear, sadness, contempt, disgust and more)
d. the physical (the body language of the angry individual, how agitated are they, how tightly are they holding their hands, how contorted are their facial expressions, etc.)
9. Attempt an apology if you feel one is warranted or appropriate. Apologies consist of five parts. First, you want to sincerely admit to the wrong doing (assuming you or your company made a mistake). ‘I know that I made an error when I filed the report with mistakes in it.’ Second, you want to apologize, ‘I apologize for…’ Third, you want to ask what you can do to make things right. Ask them, ‘Do you have any constructive criticism for me?’ Fourth, let the other party know that you will behave differently next time. ‘Next time, I will make sure there are no errors in the report before I file it.’ Finally, ask for their forgiveness. ‘Will you forgive me for filing the report with errors?’
10. Acknowledge their feelings. Help the angry party feel heard. Say something along the lines of ‘I think I understand how you feel. You are very upset. I hear you. Your anger makes complete sense to me. What can I do to help?’
11. Attempts to reason with angry individuals are likely to fall on deaf ears. When anger gets intense, the emotional mind is firmly in control of the angry person and little if any information gets in. The exception to this is information that reinforces their anger. This sort of information will be heard, will be focused on and will be magnified.
12. Act with compassion. Compassion is empathy, the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. The goal is to understand the situation from the perspective of the other person. The better you get at this learnable skill, the easier it is to unlock their anger.
13. In some instances, these de-escalation skills will not be enough to defuse a rage. You always want to be aware when dealing with angry individuals that they may not be thinking completely rationally. As a result, you want to ensure your own safety. This means you must be mindful of an escape route should things take a turn for the worse and things become violent or abusive. Make sure the angry party is not blocking your path to the door or a window. Keep this in mind if the conversation escalates slowly, calmly work your way towards a better escape route. If the situation escalates to a point where you feel it is out of control, do not hesitate to call the police to ensure your safety.
14. Learning proven methods to stay calm in emotionally charged situations is critical in business. Meeting anger with anger is usually a recipe for turning minor irritation into a full blown rage. Learning critical skills to defuse angry situations is often a great way to advance your career, assist others and, ultimately, make yourself more valuable in the workplace.
If you are interested in coaching around anger issues or de-escalation skills for yourself or your company, please call Dr. John Schinnerer at 925-575-0258 or email him at Info@GuideToSelf.com or check out the website at http://www.GuideToSelf.com or check out his online anger management classes at www.WebAngerManagement.com.