Whether it’s a superior passing down performance pressure, an irate employee overlooked at promotion or a customer who’s outrage at being poorly treated by sales reaches tipping point, workplace anger is a common occurrence and knowing how to deal with it, an essential skill as much in the boardroom as it is on teams, amongst colleagues, superiors and employees or in the customer service departments of many organisations.
Since the amydala hijack that underlies anger sets us on a purely reactive path, we must give up all hope of engaging angry people rationally when the chips are down. In dealing with anger, allowing sufficient time for the anger to dissipate and for the person to calm down is always the essential first step. Knowing that it takes the body roughly twenty minutes to recover from a full-blown fight or flight response during which time judgement and reason are on the back-burner means that our response to anger must accommodate this time-window if we are to master the situation.
Six points based on communication, problem-solving and relationship-building skills if taken real slow will help avert the worst mistakes in dealing with angry people:
1. Allow them to talk. This is the most important part of the “venting” process that will gradually bring them down and dissipate their anger. Don’t interrupt and don’t engage in self-justification or verbal counter-attack: they won’t hear you anyway and your attempts will only serve to exacerbate the situation.
2. Listen deeply to what they’re saying, focussing not only on the verbal message but also on the emotional and physical information that is coming your way.
3. Express empathy – in other words acknowledge what they have experienced and are feeling and reflect it back to them: the formula “So you…” is best for giving feedback on their emotional, verbal and physical state most accurately. “So you were left off the selection team” “So you feel very upset about this” Make a point of only speaking about them – never about you. If you’re using “I” in any way, you’re off-track: “I understand… “ at this stage is likely to get a “No, you don’t….” response and raise the heat and the conflict potential even further.
4. Forget proving one side “right” and the other “wrong”: the art of dealing with angry people in a workplace setting lies in working together as partners to solve the problem irrespective of allocation of blame.
5. Search for and find common ground for agreement between you. This is Negotiation 101: this first agreement is the breakthrough that suggests that the chance of resolution is real. It serves moreover to further reign in emotions and invites the beginnings of constructive thought around resolution. This common ground can be as simple as “We’ve both enjoyed preparing for this project – let’s find a way to make it a success”.
6. Once a potential agreement is on the table, ask for emotional feedback once again to make sure that not only the issue is being dealt with but the feelings too “Do you feel better about doing it this way?” “So would taking responsibility for marketing involve you in a meaningful way in the project?”
Of these steps, 1 – 3 in which the angry person is allowed to „vent until anger is spent“ are the most important. You will notice by a change in body posture, tone of voice and release of tension that you’ve reached that point of anger deflation. Until you do – keep repeating steps 1 – 3 until they’ve said it all. It will pay off in the end as they will progress to resolution feeling that they have been well and truly heard and understood.