Have you ever been so angry you couldn’t speak? Have your buttons been pushed so that your detonation switch was triggered?
I can relate. I have been so angry that I have lashed out like a two-year-old. I have avoided people after saying something I deeply regret. I have lived those moments in my head over and over again.
And I have learned, albeit the hard way, that when I am angry it’s best for me to say nothing at all.
But that’s easier said than done.
Experts tell us that the average explosion of anger is 45 seconds long. Try being on the receiving end of 45 seconds of anger, frustration, and undoubtedly unprofessional behaviour. But, sadly, it does happen in the workplace as well as in our personal lives.
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When your opponent is letting loose on you, it is important to take the high road, to remain calm, and to avoid saying something you will regret saying.
But how do you do that?
Rather than focusing on your anger, focus on hearing what the other person is saying. Don’t listen to what they are saying — hearing and listening are two totally different things. Hear past the person’s words, and try to understand what they are trying to tell you.
When they are finished, avoid the temptation to ask them if they are finished yet (remember, we are trying to be professional here). Let two or three full seconds pass before you say anything. Maintain eye contact. Remember that you still have to work with this person in the future (or attend family gatherings with them).
When the time has passed (to ensure they are indeed finished), put on your most “adult” voice, with as much calm as you can muster, and say, “I’m sorry you feel this way.”
This, in my opinion, is a beautiful statement. It does not mean that you agree with what they are upset about; it does not mean anything, really. You probably are sorry they feel this way, because if they weren’t so upset, you wouldn’t be at the receiving end of this explosion (and undoubtedly your day would be better).
Don’t say anything after that. Stop talking. Let them get the final bits of anger and frustration out. Don’t become a sponge, and don’t absorb what they are saying. Don’t defend yourself, or even comment on what was said at this point.
This will be difficult.
Here’s something that will be even harder: to simply walk away. Walking away and remaining quiet are two of the most important things you will ever do. You can’t say the wrong thing when you walk away. And it gives you time to ensure that you do say the right thing.
Before you walk away, you do need to indicate that this person’s behaviour is not acceptable and that you both need to do something about it. Say, “I agree that we need to talk about what just happened.” (Be sure to avoid the word “you.” Don’t say “We need to talk about what you just said.” Although true, it creates defensiveness and your opponent will not listen to what you said.)
Say, “Let’s get together again in two hours in my/your office to discuss this.” And then leave. If two hours is not OK with your opponent, leave it up to them to reschedule.
You do need to deal with the issue. But the middle of an angry confrontation is not the right place, and certainly not the right time. You need to prepare yourself for what you have to say, how you want to say it, and ensure that you are focused on the real issue and not caught up in the emotions of the situation.
I am certainly not telling you to avoid confrontation. You know I teach a webinar and deliver training programs on how to do that effectively. I am telling you to gain control of an explosive situation. At this point, you have no control. You will not say the right thing. You need time to settle down, gather your wits and your professionalism and take the high road.
When I was much younger, I worked with a man who was very verbal with his frustration. Since I was the new kid on the block, I appeared to be the easiest target. The first time it happened I had absolutely no idea what to say or do, and I was completely dumbfounded and speechless (which quite frankly, rarely happens to me). I said nothing.
One of the other more experienced people in the office came up to me and let me know that saying nothing was the perfect response. Jim wanted to fight, and by not responding, he couldn’t fight with me.
The next time it happened, I again said nothing; but I didn’t feel good about that response because his behaviour was clearly continuing. I was not about to be his verbal punching bag.
The third time it happened, I did say that I was sorry that he felt that way, but that taking out his anger on me was inappropriate and unprofessional. He had just been “told” by a 19-year-old, and he looked juvenile. I knew there was a silent round of applause for me that day. The next day (it took me a while to gather my bravado for this), I approached him, in private, and told him that if he was upset about anything that I did, I would appreciate if he spoke to me privately instead of in front of everyone. I don’t honestly remember what else I said (19 was a long time ago), but I do know that it worked, even though I was shaking in my boots.
Jim found a new target. I didn’t change his behaviour completely, but I did let him know that I wasn’t going to OK with his exploding on me, especially in public. He found someone else who would let him fight.
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It is very hard to stand up to a bully. It is very hard to take the high road. It is hard not to say exactly what you are thinking, but it is well worth the effort.
So the next time someone starts screaming at you, imagine that you are being watched by an invisible camera and look as professional, calm and in control as you possibly can be — on the outside, anyway.
As appeared in the Huffington Post on January 3, 2017