HUMAN RESOURCES / JAN. 30, 2015
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How to Handle Your Coworker’s Rage

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“The best fighter is never angry.” It’s a quote from the famous, ancient Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu about anger management. Researchers today have all but confirmed that Lao Tzu was right all along. One of the keys to managing anger is to your keep emotions in check. However there is, much more we need to know about anger and how to manage it effectively in the office. Read on to discover more.

Roots of anger

From a post by Inc’s Jessica Stillman in which she discusses the work of Harvard Professor Dr Joseph Shrand, it is clear that anger has its roots in our evolutionary history, where bloody fights or flight were survival mechanisms. Being devalued or disrespected are the core emotions associated with anger, and since the genesis of time (when was the last time you exploded at being treated with respect or being valued?) - both could at one time result in “expulsion” from a group, threatening survival. When we are angry, “existential” feelings are stirred, leading to our in-built ‘fight’ – or ‘flight’ response.

6 Tips for Dealing With a Coworkers Rage

  1. Be committed to understanding the cause of anger. To paraphrase Steven Covey, understand before being understood. Establish what it is that is threatening your co-worker or serving as a potential threat to them. This way, you automatically shift from focusing on your own self-preservation, which will help  to keep your own emotions in check (studies show that responding in kind simply escalates the anger and accomplishes little). This approach also serves to shift your coworker’s responses from ‘fight or flight’ to a part of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex – that is associated with more rational thought.
  2. Use empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. It is a means to an end; a means to show your co-worker that you are an ally and not a threat to them. It means identifying with or vicariously experiencing their struggles. Use ‘I statements’ to express your understanding, for example, “I can see how that would really smart…” Empathy communicates your respect for your coworker by acknowledging and not diminishing their feelings or experiences. And if your coworker is no longer feeling threatened, their anger should gradually dissipate and you can shift to more productive dialogue.
  3.  Encourage them to offer possible solutions. People want to feel heard, and they want to feel that their opinions and views have been accommodated. They also want to feel in control. A good question, to ask, is, “What would be a good outcome for you?” This question is a signal to them that their pride will be restored; the cloud of threat will go. It is important to ask this question once their anger has subsided, so they can offer solutions from a position of calm, rather than anger.
  4. Don’t disagree, interrupt, or explain. Studies have shown that offering explanations when people are angry can be interpreted as a veiled means of exerting superiority, i.e., a threat. Instead, use of your active listening skills. Paraphrase the gist of what they’ve told you and ask questions that show that you’ve been listening.  Pause often to give them room to respond. The information they give you will help you negotiate better with them.
  5. Negotiate, taking into account their needs.  Let them know what you can do for them, based around their needs. Once again, use ‘I’ statements when negotiating, for example, “What I’’m sure I can do for you is…” As much as possible, avoid ‘You’ statements, which are more likely to put your co-worker on a defensive footing. And err on the side of generosity.
  6. Let your co-worker have the last word. Here’s an interesting article about why you shouldn’t have the last word, not least because it will undo all the hard work you’ve done up to this point.

By drawing on these insights when you’re faced with an angry coworker, you can be a real catalyst for change, helping to move them from an unproductive and negative position to one that is more positive and productive.

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