What to Do when Anger Strikes


When someone pushes your buttons, anger is a natural reaction. Ideally, you can calmly express that anger, without lashing out. Sometimes, however, anger provokes a response that is excessive for the situation, inappropriate for the context, or counterproductive to what you're trying to accomplish. In this article, Naomi Karten offers suggestions for controlling anger rather than letting it control you.

"That bozo!" shouted Jeff, reading Denise's e-mail message. "If I told her once, I told her a billion times not to disclose the release date before our meeting on Thursday. Now, she's gone and told the world!" Jeff slammed his fist on his desk. Immediately, he keyed a heated reply and sent it, digitally ripping Denise's head off.

As Jeff sat back, his heart pounding, he noticed a message in his Inbox that he'd missed. Ben, the project director and Jeff's boss's boss, had decided that the release date was a go and asked Denise to notify everyone of the decision.

Jeff felt a chill. This new information put the situation in an entirely different light. But even if Ben hadn't sanctioned the date, Jeff's response was both premature and extreme. To make matters worse, Jeff now saw that he had hit Reply All, revealing his nasty response not only to Denise, Ben, and the project team, but also to the project sponsor and two customer executives.

Anger is a powerful emotion. In the heat of the moment, the strength of this emotion can spur you to act in haste, potentially destroying your reputation, your relationships, and your project. And once you've acquired a reputation as a hothead, a mere apology won't undo the damage. It takes considerably longer to regain a positive reputation than it takes to lose it.

Reactions such as Jeff's do not, of course, occur by e-mail alone. In my consulting work, I've witnessed or learned of many types of angry overreactions. Provoked by his teammates' refusal to adopt his recommendations, Stan hurled his pad of paper across the meeting room table and stormed out of the room. Kelly, fuming at her vendor's delivery delay, screeched some expletives into the phone and slammed it down. Alan went silent, privately boiling about his manager's decision to cancel the project. Different companies, different reactions—all triggered by anger.

Certainly anger is sometimes an understandable reaction and response that is called for. The problem occurs when that response is automatic, outside your conscious control, or part of a behavioral pattern rather than an isolated incident.

So what can you do to remain even-tempered and in control in the face of genuinely provoking situations? Here are some suggestions.

1. Whatever you're doing when anger overcomes you, stop. This is a critical starting point. When anger strikes, your ability to think clearly and act rationally is likely to decrease, perhaps precipitously. Your emotional self takes over and spurs you to take action that your rational self would approach more cautiously. In addition, internal reactions kick in that can, over time, harm your health. So, take a deep breath, and then several more deep breaths. This will impede an instantaneous overreaction and start to restore your equilibrium. The old wisdom of counting to ten is sound, though in some situations counting to one hundred—or seven thousand—would be judicious.

2. If possible, get away from the situation, even if just briefly. If you're at your desk, go outside and take a walk. If you're in a meeting, ask for a brief break or excuse yourself for a few minutes. If you're on the phone, ask to terminate the conversation and resume it later. A change of context will help you return to a rational state of mind.

3. As you calm down and your rational self returns, consider your options. If Jeff had done just that, he might still have chosen to respond to Denise. But by not acting in haste, he might have framed his response differently. For example, he might have asked Denise to explain her message, thereby gaining information that would have spared him his detrimental reply. In addition, having his conscious mind under control, he would have been careful to hit Reply instead of Reply All. For that matter, in a calmer frame of mind, he might also have noticed Ben's message and avoided his embarrassing response altogether.

4. Test your response in a safe setting. If you face a situation such as Jeff's and feel compelled to write a confrontational response, write it as a word processed document rather than an e-mail message and put it aside for a while. The very process of writing may diffuse your anger and allow you to think more clearly about the situation. Then you can make the conscious decision to send the message or not. Alternatively, you might tell a teammate—an anger buddy, with whom you've partnered when venting is necessary, perhaps—about your planned response. In relating your intention, the potential foolishness of your plan may become obvious. And even if it doesn't, your teammate will help you become grounded.

5. Give yourself time and patience. Remember the old saying "Time heals all wounds"? To that saying, I would add: "Time prevents new wounds." Unless the situation truly requires immediate attention, create distance from it. Put it aside for a while. Forget about it. Sleep on it. Even if the provoking situation doesn't change, the way you respond to it almost certainly will. Time helps nearly all situations come into clearer focus.

6. Prevent future overreactions by becoming an observer of your own behavior. Most people have triggers, things that push their rational selves aside and take control. If you can come to recognize what pushes your anger button, you can make a conscious effort to catch yourself before anger takes control. Catching yourself may take time and practice, especially if the tendency to overreact is a deeply ingrained habit. Some people benefit from reminders as they adjust, such as a trusted colleague whose reminders will help you become more aware of your behavior. Some people use small items as symbolic reminders, such as a trinket in a pocket or an item on the desk (a roll of duct tape?). Even a string around your finger may help you become more aware of your behavior.

When anger strikes, lashing out is the easy response. It takes a controlled mind to make your response a conscious, deliberate, and thoughtful choice.

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