I am often asked why some people always seem to be angry. One person wrote to ask me, “I have a manager who is always angry. She gets angry when I do as she has asked. She gets angry when I don’t do as she has asked. It seems like she is angry at everyone all the time. Everyone on our team goes to great lengths to avoid her. In fact, the first thing we do every morning is assess the level of her irritation before the day gets under way. Why are some people always angry, and is there anything you recommend that would help the situation?”
It is important to understand how to manage emotional reactions to insure that our conversations at work and in our personal lives are effective and rational.
Let’s begin by defining anger: an emotion that arises because of a perceived loss. This loss can be perceived because something someone did is, in the individual’s view, unfair or unwarranted. Interestingly, anger is a secondary emotion that serves to veil a more vulnerable emotion—what we feel first. The perception of loss we experience in dealing with others may veil one of five primary emotions:
Frustration occurs because of violated expectations, broken promises, or failed commitments surrounding performance issues. Expectations are at issue when you hear:
“Your failure to meet the deadline cost us the contract.”
Embarrassment results from an attack on someone’s person, made even worse if it is made in public. You will know an attack has occurred if you hear:
“She actually insulted me in front of the entire team.”
Disappointment arises from the loss of an anticipated gain. When anticipation collides unhappily with reality, you might hear:
“Are you telling me that after we responded to all their nitpicky requests, they still didn’t accept our proposal?”
Fear results when the actions of others threaten security or safety. Safety is at issue when you hear:
“That jerk nearly hit the front of our car and killed us!”
Rejection may arise when someone says or does something that negates or invalidates ideas or performance. For example, if an individual values personal autonomy in their work, a value violation might sound like this:
“It drives me crazy when he stands over my shoulder and constantly tells me what to do!”
When someone feels frustrated, embarrassed, disappointed, afraid, or rejected, the primary emotion may look like anger.
Perception of Self
Sometimes our perception of self creates an emotion that is expressed as anger. In my experience, a leader who outwardly expresses hostile feelings is actually angry at himself or herself. Perhaps she failed to foresee challenges that could arise when she asked someone to accomplish a task. Perhaps he failed to share his expectations clearly and his lack of clarity showed up in the end result. Unfortunately, employees end up catching the brunt of a leader’s anger, often taking that anger personally. Some managers are quick to assign blame rather than take personal responsibility.
Though it may be difficult to tell where it is coming from, we can confidently say that someone who is full of angry energy will be spewing it on everyone in the vicinity. Unfortunately, negative emotional energy pushes people away; no one likes to be around a person who is always angry. That emotional state keeps them from connecting with and understanding—or being understood by—others.
Here are some strategies for dealing with an angry individual.
Don’t take it personally. Remember that a person’s emotion says more about them than about you. Their emotion is a product of their perception. Recognize that there is something going on in that person’s head that is driving the emotion. That something is what you want to discover. Asking questions is a great way to begin.
Acknowledge their feelings. Acknowledging a person’s feelings has the effect of reducing the emotional energy they are displaying. Use any of the following phrases:
“I can see you’re upset.”
“I can see you have strong feelings about…”
“I can see this means a lot to you.”
Ask questions to understand. Follow acknowledgement of feelings with open-ended questions:
“I can see you’re upset (Emotion). What’s going on?”
Listen for what is wanted. If you ask enough questions, they should tell you their story. Embedded in their story is information about what they wanted but didn’t get—their values. Don’t hesitate to ask questions to clarify if you are in doubt. Remember that when a person has a negative complaint, it is really their expression of a positive value.
Look for opportunities to affirm a person’s values. Once you know what is important to a person, sincerely affirm that value. For example, if a manager values serving your customers, look for an opportunity to say something like this:
“I also appreciate the importance of serving our customers well. Can we talk about how to do that better?”
Notice that once you affirm their value, the conversation shifts to addressing the current challenge, which changes the focus to making vital improvements.
Look for opportunities to express appreciation. Look for opportunities to recognize what a person does well. Gossiping and complaining about their behavior behind their back never helps the situation, but instead generates an energy all its own that others pick up on and will often make any emotional situation worse.
Emotion is a fascinating topic. Recognize that a person’s outward emotion—anger—is really a signal of that person’s perception of loss of something that is important to them. Your challenge is to defuse the emotion, identify the perceived loss, and create a plan of action to address the issue. In other words, your challenge is to find a way to work together more effectively and respectfully.
– John R. Stoker is the Founder and CEO of DialogueWORKS, and author of the newly-released book Overcoming Fake Talk (CLICK HERE to get your copy). John has over 25 years of experience in the fields of OB and Training and is a highly-experienced coach and facilitator.