Whenever I talk about my work with someone, they eventually ask me for tips on how to deal with a difficult person. Often the difficulty arises when they, or the other, lose their temper. I find this to be a very common and important question both in the workplace and in our homes. We all get angry, and we all deal with the anger of others. It is life. It is human.
A common reaction is to deal with anger by attacking the other or defending our position from them. This is an automatic response when we feel threatened. What if we could experience the anger of others without feeling a threat? I believe that, although it is a very difficult task, it is indeed possible. There are three things I’ve encouraged my clients (and myself) to try when faced with such difficulties; they are grounded in the Eoyang CDE model. First, set patterns of safety for yourself (the container). Second, focus on what matters most to you (the differences). Third, be curious and learn something from each encounter (the exchange).
1) Set Patterns of Safety: It starts with you
Calm yourself. Do something you find relaxing. Do this every time you are about to see or interact with the angry other. If the other is like a tornado, then you must be like a storm shelter. The angry other only gains strength if they can blow you over. You gain strength if you can stay at your center letting the storm twirl around you and then away. And yes, they will eventually lose steam or go away. Angry behavior only lasts as long as it gets a reaction out of others.
The process of calming helped Joe, my client, deal with his co-worker’s angry outburst while they shared a small office space. Joe had already tried talking to his co-worker, but he still felt rattled when his office mate’s anger emerged. Joe felt stuck. The process of calming himself offered a way to mitigate his rattled feeling. It helped him find a small space of safety in the moment, so he could come out of the experience with less personal damage.
This process also helps me. When I lead conflict resolution sessions I spend a lot of time securing the space for my clients to safely and effectively communicate with each other. It is my job to stay cool and not react to my client’s emotions. I maintain the safety in each session and teach them strategies to maintain it for themselves in the future.
2) Set Patterns of Focus: What matters most
Focus on the tasks you want to complete. This is easier if you are calm. Write down your task list and carry it with you. If you feel distracted by someone’s anger, look at your list and focus on one item you can work on or complete right away. Then do it.
I asked Joe to write his list of tasks for each day. He started writing it while riding the bus to work, and then kept it close to him throughout the day. When his co-worker’s anger emerged, he calmed himself, let the interaction pass, then turned to his list to focus on the things he needed to do. Previously, Joe’s stomach would be in knots for the rest of the day, but now he had a way of focusing his energy to the work at hand. He could keep his professional focus despite the challenges his co-worker presented during the workday.
Angry people get a lot of attention, so the key is to acknowledge but not focus on them or their outbursts. If you are calm and focused on your tasks, you can hear the angry other, let their energy dissipate, then return to whatever needs your attention. Don’t let the angry other distract you from this. After the outburst, there is opportunity to talk, or to take other corrective action. Those corrective actions depend on frequency, severity, duration, and ripple effects of the angry outburst.
There are two very important things I want to mention here. First, it is not sustainable to chronically face someone else’s anger. Even soldiers on the front line of warfare get time off to heal and re-group. I do not advocate staying near someone who is constantly or excessively raging. I just offer a way to manage it when you cannot take space from it, or when there is no risk of bodily harm. Second, none of this is easy to do. We all lose our focus, even us mediators. It is ok to fail sometimes, just be sure to take care and re-focus when you can. It will be the difference between burning out and surviving. Surviving means you can keep your professional head high and think clearly about your next steps. This is the real goal.
3) Set Patterns of Curiosity: Learn something from each encounter
The way Joe managed himself with his angry co-worker was not only important to his own work, but to his work team. As a team lead, others looked to Joe to oversee projects and priorities. A major challenge for anyone in Joe’s situation is how to handle one’s own emotional response, focus on the work, while managing an angry co-worker. Joe needed to stay curious about what the team needed, what he needed, and what the organization needed from all of them.
It is important to ignore any personal attacks. What people say is more about themselves than about the person they are saying it to. If you are calm and focused, then you are better prepared to let insults wash away from you. Strong leaders know how to keep their cool, not take things personally, and find the learning opportunity in any challenge.
The advantage you have in any situation is to reflect on what the other person is teaching you. Imagine the other not as your adversary but as your teacher. Again, this is not easy to do, but it is very powerful when you can. If you can see past the storm, challenging situations force you to recognize your own triggers and boundaries. This is the key to accessing powerful learning in human systems. We all have triggers and boundaries, and once you know yours, you are well positioned to know how to respond, or when to take space.
Overall, dealing with anger requires focus and the ability to look within you. When you actively set patterns of calm, focus, and curiosity, you promote empowerment for yourself. Taking these actions enables you to de-escalate the situation and open the doorway to learning and change.