Your heart is racing, you can feel heat radiating from your ears, you can feel your pulse in your neck, your palms are sweaty. Your body is reacting as if you are in serious physical danger. But you are not in physical danger, you are just face to face with an angry co-worker. This physiological reaction, known to psychologists as the “stress response” is a totally normal reaction to threat, designed to keep us safe. The problem is that when we are in the midst of a stress response, we reduce our ability to process complex information, think creatively, and monitor our own behavior. The skill necessary to deal with an angry co-worker is one of the most useful communication skills you can acquire. Let’s talk about how.
Outside of unusual circumstances, when you notice an angry co-worker, it is first best to assume that they are angry for a reason. More specifically, a reason that seems totally reasonable and rational to them. You likely will not have the benefit of the full context and timeline that brought them to this state, but assuming that they arrived there reasonably is an important first step. Absent this step, we typically engage folks with the baseline idea that the way in which we observe and understand a situation is the same way that everyone will observe and understand it. Logically, we know that this isn’t true, but at the moment it is hard to remember this. So when we see our co-worker angry, rather than treating them with respectful understanding, we start by reacting to their apparent irrationality. It’s the same reaction we give when someone cuts us off in traffic. Do we stop to think about rational understanding? Nope, we jump to the assumption that they are irrational (and maybe some other things not fit for print here).
Let’s take a pause to acknowledge that there are circumstances where interacting with an angry co-worker can be detrimental to our mental, emotional, or even physical health. In these cases, your duty to self is more important than your duty to that person. Give yourself permission to exit the situation and, if necessary, bring the situation to an appropriate third party.
If your situation with your angry co-worker is one that you want to handle, and there is important work that needs to be done, but is being impeded by the anger, follow this rule: try to understand the content AND the context of their anger.
Try to understand the content and the context of their anger. When we’re angry, there is usually a clear point that triggered the anger. Someone said something, someone did something, etc., that is the “content.” However when we get to the level of angy (beyond annoyed, frustrated, and perturbed) it isn’t just because of one external influence or situation. It often is built upon additional inference or meaning like, “When you said you didn’t want me to work on the project, it seemed like you think my work product is inferior to others. People have been assuming that my work is inferior my entire career!.” This is the “context.” When you understand both the content and the context, you will better understand why anger is the reaction they are exhibiting. And when people feel truly understood… anger tends to subside.
It is never easy dealing with an angry co-worker, but if you can stay calm and find understanding, you can find your way back to productive dialogue (and may even strengthen the relationship in the process).
Eric M. Bailey is president of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group.