Sometimes it's hard to imagine how some people can be so unhappy. Every business from Fortune 500 companies to small boutiques has seen its fair share of whiners and angry complainers. Our businesses depend on teamwork. We therefore have no choice but to deal with the occasional angry, frustrated and unhappy colleagues.
Your response to angry people depends on where they are in their anger, which occurs in a three-phase process.
It starts with the trigger phase in which something strikes a nerve. This feeling escalates to the fight-or-flight phase in which people start to show agitation through emphatic gestures, raised tones and accelerated speech. The third phase of anger is the explosion, when the person loses control of rational thought. In dealing with angry people, you treat each stage of the process differently.
In the first phase, when a colleague gets angry at something that happens, you can normally diffuse the situation immediately by acknowledging them, but without giving power to what they say. You can respond with something like, "I can see you're frustrated," or "I know this is challenging." It is critical that you don't take it on, defend or join in on the complaining.
If your initial reaction isn't enough to calm them down, and they move into the second phase of anger (fight or flight), listen to them without interruption.
People generally deescalate if they are allowed to express their feelings, while interruptions make people talk louder and longer. If in public, it's a good idea to speak to the angry person outside or privately in your office. With an audience in earshot, angry people refuse to let go of their egos and tend to dig their heels in deeper.
Ask them to take a seat, and if possible, do not sit behind a desk. Sitting down puts their body (and racing heart) to rest, and puts you at eye level with them so they are not towering over you or encroaching on your personal space. The presence of any obstacle between you and them gives the sense that one of you is blocked. Then listen without interruption or defensiveness. If you're on the phone, take a deep breath, smile, and listen to their story fully.
One word of caution: Do not tell people to calm down. If you've done this, you know it usually sends the person into a rage.
What if you the angry person is in phase three, and either threatens you or makes you feel concerned for your safety?
You have only one choice: End it.
With rational thought out of the equation it is futile to continue. You have the legal and moral right to stand your ground. Make sure, however, that you are professional and appropriate. Use the word "unacceptable" to explain how you feel and be brief. You can leave the door open for them to come back later when they are calm.
There's no reason for you to feel guilty about being assertive or frustrated by your inability to make them calm. Remember that in the end, no matter how hard you try, the only person's anger you are responsible for is your own.
Managing anger in others is part of our jobs. It is important to realize that other people's anger isn't about you. Your only job is to calm them down, even when you don't agree with them. That is the ultimate way to keep them and you happy.
Elisa Levy conducts seminars on conflict resolution and anger management. For more information, contact her at 305-296-5437 or visit http://www.elisalevy.com.