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How to Defuse an Anger Bomb

Is other people's anger holding you back from being successful? A Harvard psychiatrist tells how to deal with rage at work.
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Your boss, co-worker or client comes at you with a red face, raised voice, and dominating posture. What do you do?

There are few situations more stressful than dealing with rage at work, and with tight economic times stressing everyone out, such encounters are hardly rare. But thankfully, there are healthy ways to deal with other people's anger according to Dr. Joseph Shrand, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of a forthcoming book entitled Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion.

By understanding the root causes of rage and hacking your own emotional response to anger, "you can use your brain to defuse that bomb," he told Inc.com in an interview, So how do you keep other people'e anger from standing in the way of your success?

Use Yourself as a Learning Lab

Your problem may be someone else's anger, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't start with yourself. What exactly is anger and where does it come from? The first step to learning to deal with this sometimes terrifying emotion is answering these questions, according to Dr. Shrand.

"When is the last time you got angry at someone treating you with respect?" he asks.

Think about it. The answer is never. Whether it's because someone stole your parking space or took credit for your awesome idea, anger is always a response to feeling disrespected. You get angry because you don't like what someone has done and what it says about their respect for you—and you want to show them.

"When you feel angry," says Dr. Shrand, "you have probably felt disrespected and without value, so you want something to change. Anger is an emotion designed to change the behavior of somebody else." And it's no wonder these feelings are so intense. They have a long—and bloody—evolutionary history. Being disrespected or unvalued once meant possible exclusion from the group.

"Human beings just want to be valued by other human beings, and the reason has evolutionary premium. A couple of million years ago we were never the biggest, fastest, or strongest animal. We were always at risk of being lunch. Then we began forming these small social groups and our survival potential increased dramatically," he says. Being threatened with expulsion from the group still stirs up this early existential terror of facing a hungry lion all alone, even if these days it's just over the guy who always steals your sandwich. 

Keep It Frontal; Don't Go Limbic

Great, now you know the roots of anger, how does that help you deal with rage at work? By turning that insight on your angry colleague, Dr. Shrand says, you can use empathy to defuse the situation.

"If somebody approaches you with anger, your initial response will be to get angry in return, to retreat, or to try to become invisible and hope the danger passes," he says. But we've evolved a fourth option since our hunter-gatherer days.

"You can step back and wonder, why are they so angry? What is happened in their world that they want something to change?' Do they think that they are being threatened by someone? Are they are suspicious that somebody is trying to take something from them? Are they envious?" he asks.

The goal of these questions is to move your response from the ancient urge to scream back or flee that originates in the brain's primitive limbic system, to a response that utilizes an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, which is a relatively new addition to our cognitive machinery that is responsible for planning and decision-making.

What does that look like in practice? If your own anger in response is manageable (Dr. Shrand says anywhere below a five on your own 1-10 scale of rage), "use empathy to approach [your angry co-worker] and engage them. Empathy is saying, "I'm interested in who you are. Relax. I'm not a threat to you. I'm here to help you because I see you as valuable member of this team." If you're too emotional yourself to do that in the moment, come back and do it once you've calmed down. 

So I'm the Sucker?

Maybe your response to this advice goes something like this: When my colleague is acting like an angry jerk, it's my responsibility to soothe them? Doesn't that make me a bit of a sucker?

While there are certainly toxic people who you should simply refuse to do business with, learning to respond to occasional anger from otherwise valued team members has huge practical benefits, according to Dr. Shrand.

"The initial reaction is, I am at risk of being exploited if I do this, my resources are going to be diminished. But that's not really true," he says. "If I use my pre-frontal cortex to treat someone with respect by engaging empathy, communicating with them, it's going to calm their brain, and then we all have a chance to actually do something. Remember it's not my anger that's getting in the way of my success, it's your anger, so by modulating your anger we can all be more successful." 

Responding emotionally or running away may have an immediate emotional pay-off but, "there may be actually a better long-term outcome with greater success and more stability in your business if you don't succumb to this immediate kneejerk reaction," Dr. Shrand says. "If we can get another person to begin feeling valuable, it will bind them to us. Now you have a group of people who have a shared goal, who want to please each other and be successful. How could that not be better in business?"

Interested in learning more? Dr. Shrand's new book lays out his seven-step process for dealing with anger in detail. 

 

Last updated: Feb 1, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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