Put Out the Flame So how exactly do you handle an angry co-worker? Whether it’s the timid worker who just had a rough day or the put-upon old-timer who appears perpetually angry, you’re bound to face confrontations throughout your workday. Dr. Weisinger says there are three steps you can take when tempers ﬂare. First, keep your own perspective. This means staying relaxed and realizing that the anger has nothing to do with you. Second, be a supportive listener—not a judging one. Find out what happened by saying things like “Tell me more,” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” “Evaluating can shut down communication,” Dr. Weisinger says. “But if you’re reﬂecting on what the person is saying, you’re getting them to put externally on the table what they’re experiencing internally. And sometimes they’ll come to their own conclusion and say, ‘You know, I’m overreacting.’” After going through this listening process, Dr. Weisinger recommends taking one more step: Show your co-worker how to handle the situation. Advice can often go in one ear and out the other which is why he suggests modeling the correct behavior or role-playing with your coworker. “Not only does this help the person develop skills in how to handle a particular situation, but the act of role-playing gives them a sense of emotional conﬁdence that if they can do it with you, they can do it with another person,” Dr. Weisinger says.
Take the Heat Staying calm and role-playing is all well and good when the anger is directed at the woman in the next cubicle, but things don’t look so rosy when you become the target of your co-worker’s wrath. That’s something requiring a different plan of action. For starters, you may need to bite your tongue and not argue with the person. “The last thing [an angry person] expects you to do is agree with them,” says Mitch Messer, M. A., founder of the Anger Clinic in Chicago (111 North Wabash Avenue, 312.263.0035). “Why don’t we just agree that the poor thing feels the way she feels?” Agreeing with someone who’s got a problem with you may feel like a blow to the ego, so try easing the pain by using phrases such as “I don’t blame you for being angry,” or “It’s awful, I know,” advises Mr. Messer, who now co-directs the Clinic with Geraldine Katovich. Next, it’s important not to get defensive. Doing this makes the accusation real—it gives them leverage to keep ﬁghting. “We make the mistake of getting into a ﬁght on right and wrong, but this is not about justice and fair play,” Mr. Messer says. “It’s about someone being angry, someone having a grievance…and that’s a wound.” Mr. Messer suggests mending this wound with what he calls “emotional ﬁrst aid.” This is the process of asking questions and ﬁnding out why the person is so mad in the ﬁrst place. Don’t think of it as prying; think of it as being compassionate. Ask them questions like, “What happened to spark this?” or “What angered you the most when that happened?” By listenting to your co-worker’s story, you may help her solve a problem that goes much deeper than you swiping her stapler.
Don’t Add Fuel to the Fire... Dealing with an irate co-worker is difﬁcult and can lead to countless pitfalls. You can’t be prepared for every anger trap that comes your way, but there are a few major things to avoid. One: Keep your own anger in check. The quickest way to feed your co-worker’s ﬁre is to get angry right back. Don’t let them take you there. Two: Don’t let your co-worker’s anger affect your self-esteem. “Even if it’s true, even if you did do something stupid, tell yourself that you are a worthwhile human being in spite of what just happened,” Mr. Messer suggests. “You can replace taking it personally with regret. Regret is an
appropriate, legitimate, healthy emotion. Regret is the wish that things were other than the way they are.” Of course, if regret becomes a constant emotion in your life, it may be time to take action. “A big mistake people make when they get angry at work is saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it,’” Dr. Weisinger says. “That dissipates the anger, but it also puts them in the victim role. So inevitably they get frustrated and angry, and they end up depressed and live a life of quiet desperation—when there is something they can do about it: they can leave. No one is holding a gun to their head.” If you do decide to exit, it’s important to do so in a way that’s peaceful and not acrimonious. Avoid having a ﬁnal showdown with your boss or sending the ofﬁce a mass “hate email.” Not only will you take that anger with you, but you’ll also burn bridges that you may need in the future, Mr. Messer cautions.
...Or Start It It’s easy to point ﬁngers at your hotheaded co-workers, but what if you’re the one turning up the heat? It’s inevitable that the workday is going to tick you off at some point. That’s natural. So when ofﬁce conﬂicts push you to your limit, you need to feel prepared. Begin by recognizing the physical cues of anger. Everyone’s cues are different; you need to learn yours. For some it’s a raised voice, while for others it may be a faster heartbeat or a red face. Whatever it is, chances are something about you is speeding up (heart rate, perspiration rate, speaking voice, etc.), so it’s a good idea to get yourself to slow down. Once you can think straight, it’s important to assess the situation. Ask yourself: “What’s wrong?” “Am I accurately interpreting this?” “Am I magnifying the situation?” Often, the problem is just in your head—you could be blowing things out of proportion because you’ve had a bad day or because you’re actually mad at something else entirely. However, if that’s not the case, you need to think about a better way to respond. That may be talking with someone or, if possible, just letting the situation go.
Release Your Steam Of course, sometimes you just need to vent. If you’re fresh out of friends willing to listen to your frustrations, try putting your thoughts down on paper. “We encourage people to get it out of their system and write an anger letter to those who are making them angry,” says Mr. Messer, who strongly encourages this method. “That way, they feel like they’re in control, they’re making it happen. It forces them to live in the present and not nurse wounds from the past and it gives them a feeling of independence. No one is telling them how to write the letter, they’re doing it on their own.” While this may sound simplistic, Mr. Messer has seen it help clients time and time again. The idea is that they’re doing something for themselves—not against anyone else. By taking this action, you can take control of the situation and restore your own mental health. Call the person every name in the book, then tear up the letter and move on.
See the Upside of Anger If anger goes unchecked it can lead to countless problems, including depression, stress and even a weakening of the immune system—not to mention its potential to have disastrous consequences on your relationships and career. However, there is a silver lining: If we let it, anger can also be a good thing, because it’s an emotion to communicate information that something is amiss. So the next time a co-worker rants about budgets or computer glitches, don’t take it personally—take action. By listening to such frustration, you can help improve your organization. This may be as minor as saying “thank you” more often or as major as sharing data so that everyone understands why the budget is the way it is and if you can work together to change it. Thus, you start turning anger into contentment. ■ TCW JULY 25
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