Dealing with the demon anger

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, April 26, 2005

Venting, writing a letter you never send and setting boundaries are all steps in handling tempestuous co-workers

I am trying to be more assertive and state my needs, but one of my colleagues does not listen to anything anyone says. He becomes angrier, louder and appears very threatening. When there is a problem, he blames others for it and calls them "incompetent and stupid." Sometimes, this makes me angry, too. It is easier to just pull away and let things be, but I am becoming more aware how resentful I become and want to address this differently.

You are right: While avoiding this overtly angry reaction is easier at the time, it is not easier in the long run. If there is something you need to say, it is not easier later. There are two parts to this situation: dealing with your anger and then dealing with your colleague's anger.

Let's start with dealing with your own anger. Sometimes, we think we should not be angry. We are more comfortable with being patient and tender and compassionate. Anger, as a feeling, is always appropriate; it is how you express it that makes it more or less acceptable.

The best way to start to address your own feelings is to acknowledge what they are. Some of us are so uncomfortable with "negative" feelings, such as anger, that we deny them and so do not even know when we are angry. Understand your own anger. Anger is always a secondary response; it can follow feeling hurt, afraid, sad, disappointed or embarrassed.

Then, we need to learn ways to express this. Try creating an anger vocabulary. Take a piece of paper and write the word "anger" on top, in big bold letters. Then, underneath, write all the ways you can think of to express your anger, i.e., other words and phrases that connote the same feeling. Listen to what others whom you like and respect say when they are angry and add this to your list.

Ask family and friends you feel safe with what they would say when angry. Be open to looking for other suggestions in movies and books. You cannot express your feelings if you do not know how. (If you have time, while you are at it, create a vocabulary for other feelings too. Instead of "anger," make several columns, with the words "mad, sad, glad and afraid" on top, with grateful apologies to Dr. Seuss, and find more ways to express those feelings.)

The Four Letter technique is a great tool. Using these words and phrases, write out your angry feelings in a letter (the first of four), addressed to the person directly. Say exactly what you want to; do not hold back or edit your thoughts and feelings. This is not a letter you will ever send. This is crucial and bears repeating—do not send this first letter. If you have done this properly and really said what you felt, this is never productive for anyone else to read. While it may seem to capture your points perfectly at the time, it is too intense for anyone else to understand. Rip it up. Press delete.

When you start to feel the same again, write out a second letter, then a third and then a fourth. By the time you get to the fourth draft, you are calmer, your writing makes more sense, you have probably found a more balanced perspective, and you can decide IF you need to address it further.

Venting your feelings to a highly trusted family member, friend or colleague may help too. If after this, you feel you want to address the issue productively to the person, use "I" and "me" statements to express how you are feeling. Decide what the point you want to make is. If there are many, limit to one at a time.

What if the other person is angry? First of all, anticipate the process. Then, whatever the response is, you will be better able to deal with it and not be caught off guard. The best way to defuse anger is to agree. You do not have to agree with all that is said, but you can always find some aspect of it to agree with. Sometimes, all we can agree with is that the person is angry; this is enough. This can help to calm things down.

If he or she continues to express anger, yell or call names, you can call the person on the behaviour. "I beg your pardon, but that sounds like an insult. Did you mean it that way?"

Remember, you do not deserve to be yelled at. Ask the person to stop. Say, "Please stop yelling. I will discuss this later in private." Or "Stop. I do not like to be yelled at."

Continue to set limits. Here are some steps:

• Acknowledge the situation. "It's clear you are upset."

• Commit to your involvement. "I am happy to work with you to address it."

• Describe what behavior you do not like. "Words like . . . When I hear you say . . . ."

• Describe the effect of this. "I get defensive." "I shut down." "I don't want to work with you."

• Give your preferred scenario. "I would prefer it if you could calm down and tell me what you would like."

• State a mutually positive outcome. "That way, we can work this out together. . . ."

There are different levels of setting limits. Start with a polite request. This often works. You may have to progress to increased verbal intensity and match the other's voice tone and pitch. Finally, you may have to state a consequence, such as, "I will report this behaviour to . . . ." Be sure to follow through.

You have no control over someone else's behaviour. However, you can control how you react to it and how much it affects you. If you woke up that day planning to have a good day, do not hand over control of your day to this person. Have the day you want to have.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.