What do you do when you get angry, with a customer, a boss, a co-worker, or a family member? There are four different ways you can deal with your own anger, according to Blake Griffin Edwards, licensed family therapist and behavioral health expert. Most people use most or all of these responses at different times and in different situations. But only one will give you the best chance of getting what you want and achieving your goals.
In a fascinating blog post on the Psychology Today website, Edwards describes the four ways people handle anger in detail. Here's a quick look at each:
1. You blow up.
Maybe you do this yourself sometimes. If not, you certainly know someone who does. People who respond this way to their own anger don't hide their feelings or waste time counting to 10. They let those who made them angry know right away, often at high volume, exactly how mad they are. My mother was this way. When I was a child, she once threw a cabbage at me, or at least in my general direction, when she lost her temper while cooking dinner. (I remember the flying cabbage but not what she was angry about.)
Blowing up when you're angry can feel very satisfying. You slam a door, or hang up a phone, or shout the other person down. You've vented your emotions, and it feels like you've taken control of the situation. But then one of two things will happen. Either the person you've attacked will respond with equal anger, escalating the conflict. Or he or she will back down and let you have your way for fear of your bad temper. Either way, as Edwards notes, you'll have missed the opportunity to talk your differences through, and see if there's a mutually acceptable solution. You'll have put your conflict off until next time--assuming that person is willing to try working with you again.
Blowing up can also lead to embarrassment. In one of my favorite scenes from the final season of The Big Bang Theory, Howard and Raj get into an argument in Raj's office, and Raj gets up and stomps out of the room. A few moments, later, he returns. When Howard asks what's happening, Raj sheepishly explains: "I just stormed out for dramatic effect. I don't have anywhere to go."
2. You seethe.
You don't want to shout at the person who's made you angry so you turn passive-aggressive instead. You neglect to share crucial information, or you fail to complete your part of a project, knowing it will make the other person look bad. You don't seek to discuss your differences in private, instead you make jokes about the other person in public. If someone calls you on it, you insist that you were only kidding.
This might seem like a better approach than blowing up because there's no out-and-out argument. In fact, it's much worse because at least when you blow up, the person you're angry with knows that you're angry and why. By withholding that information, you make it very hard for anyone else to understand what's bothering you, let alone do something to resolve the issue.
And yet, many of us turn passive-aggressive almost by instinct rather than engaging in straightforward conflict. For one thing, it seems safer. Blowing up at another person can have serious consequences for your relationship and potentially your career, if the person is a customer or colleague. A passive-aggressive response seems safer because you can always pretend that there's nothing really wrong, or that you really didn't intend to be hurtful.
I don't know about you, but I sometimes find myself drifting into passive-aggressive behavior without meaning to when I'm angry about something but can't bring myself to say so. Sometimes I can't even admit it to myself. If you catch yourself being snide or demeaning to someone else, or leaving someone in the lurch, stop and ask yourself why.
3. You do nothing and try to forget it.
This is too often the way I try to handle my own upsets. "Least said, soonest mended." I've repeated this old saying to myself hundreds of times to convince myself that I should just ignore a slight or a mistreatment, get over it and move on.
There are multiple drawbacks to this approach. First, if you are angry but avoiding confrontation, your tendency will be to withdraw, which can make you seem distant and uncaring (I've been accused of this when I was angry and trying not to show it). Second, you wind up turning the anger inward, which Edwards warns can lead to depression. The problem with just trying to forget it and move on is that if you're upset and you don't do anything about it, moving on isn't all that easy.
4. You say why you're angry without blowing up.
Edwards calls this "diplomatic anger" and it's the key to dealing with your anger in a constructive way, particularly in the workplace. This approach has three steps:
1. You explain why you're upset.
2. You ask for what you want.
3. You back up your request with reasoning and facts.
Very early in my career, I learned that someone the company had hired recently, and who had less seniority than I did, had been given a raise that put his salary well above mine. The fact that we were dating (which is why I knew his salary) just made it that much worse. My first response was to do nothing--but as Edwards warned, that just left me feeling more and more terrible. My next idea was to look for another job, and I went on a few job interviews. I didn't get any of the jobs that I applied for, though I came close a couple of times. But I didn't really want any of them--they all seemed less appealing than the job I already had.
Finally, I walked into my boss's office and, stammering a little, explained that I knew about the new hire's salary (though not why I knew). I said it was unfair and that I should be paid more. To my surprise, my boss agreed that I was underpaid. He gave me a small raise right away and promised a bigger one at the next annual review. I'd spent weeks tearing my hair out because I thought my work wasn't valued. It turned out there had been no need.
I wish I could say I learned my lesson that day about how to deal with my own anger constructively. But there have been plenty of times since then when I handled it the wrong way, and I'm sure there will be plenty more. The same is probably true for you.
But I'll remember as often as I can to state why I'm angry, say what I want, and back up my request with facts. Because I know that will give me the best chance I have of solving the conflict and getting what I want. What about you?