Part 3: Caution emotion at work – How to handle someone else’s anger at work

December 19, 2017

This is the third in a series on emotion at work. Having looked last time at how to handle your own anger at work, this month I’m focusing on dealing with someone else’s anger. Angry people can be intimidating, so it’s useful to have strategies for dealing with them, depending on where their anger is directed.

1. Rage against the machine

The photocopier has jammed for the umpteenth time just as your colleague is preparing copies of a really important document. Your colleague snaps. This is probably the easiest example of anger to deal with as you can probably just let them rant for a bit and perhaps intervene before they kick the machine. If they’re so prone to this kind of behaviour that various bits of office equipment have dents in them, then you might want to have a quiet word, when they’re in a calmer place, about how they manage their frustration and the impact they’re having on others – and on their own reputation.

2. Those $&**!! useless idiots

When someone’s raging about a supplier or another department, it’s got a little more heat to it than a rant about a photocopier  – these are real people, after all – but there’s still a certain distance that keeps it relatively safe. How you respond may depend on your own views on the issue. Maybe you feel the other party is being unfairly maligned and want to defend them. On the other hand, you might be nursing your own grievance and be keen to join in. It’s worth thinking about what you want to achieve before you respond at all. Are you likely to fuel your colleague’s anger? If so, maybe now is not the moment to say much.

A couple of useful questions/conversation openers in this situation are:

  • “I can see how frustrated/pissed off/annoyed you are about this. Now you’ve got it off your chest, what are you planning to do?” – this is useful for those people who love a good whinge but aren’t brave enough to take constructive action.
  • “I wonder what they’re saying about this right now. How might it look from their point of view?” – this is useful when you’re pretty sure there’s another side to this story.

3. Someone else in the room

It all gets a bit closer to home when someone is angry with another person in the room, particularly in a meeting. For some people this is worse than anger being directed at them, because they’re afraid things might spiral out of control. If you fit this category, then try not to stifle things so much that nothing gets resolved. Useful strategies in this situation include:

  • acknowledging the anger
  • finding out what’s behind it without using the word “why?”, which immediately puts people on the defensive
  • listening and reflecting back.

“I can see how annoyed/frustrated/angry you are about this. What is it in particular that you feel so strongly about?”. “So what you’re saying is…..”. Angry people often want to feel heard and to have their anger acknowledged. It doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them or that there aren’t other perspectives.

If two people are embroiled in an argument that’s getting heated, try taking a leaf out of a relationship counsellor’s book – ask one of them to explain the situation from their perspective, uninterrupted, for a few minutes, then get the other person to summarise what they said without adding anything. Make sure the first person feels properly heard. Then reverse the roles. Hearing themselves explain the other point of view can take some of the heat out and help identify common ground to build on.

4. You – because you’ve messed up

You’ve made a mistake that’s had consequences and now someone – your boss, a colleague, a client – is giving it to you with both barrels. Try not to get defensive and start with four As:

  • Admit you were at fault
  • Apologise
  • Acknowledge that they’re entitled to be angry
  • Accept responsibility – explain what you’re going to do to put the situation right and /or ensure it doesn’t happen again.

What if they’re still angry and haranguing you? Try one or both of these questions:

  • “Given where we are, what would you like to happen now?”
  • “What do you need from me?”

If they’re simply venting their anger to make themselves feel better or to punish you, then they’ll either ask for something you’ve already given, e.g. an apology, which you can repeat, or not know how to answer the question. That may be your way out – “Perhaps we should pick this up when you’ve had time to think about what you’d like to happen next”.

5. You – because you don’t agree

This can harder to handle than a situation where you know you’ve screwed up because a) you may not be expecting it and b) you may not see their anger as justified. Often these situations arise from mismatched expectations – they thought you’d back their ideas and you didn’t, they expected you to take responsibility for something you thought was their responsibility, you have different expectations about what “good enough” looks like and so on.

Getting some clarity about these different expectations can take the conversation away from who’s right and who’s wrong and form the basis of a negotiation of a way forward. The open questions, listening and reflecting back mentioned in point 3 are just as relevant here but harder to master when you’re one of the people embroiled in the heated debate. Don’t be afraid to take time out to get your head together, even if it’s just popping to the loo.

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat:

Photo credits

Gai Comans

Francisco Fabian Neira Segura

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