It’s happening again… you feel like someone in the office is angry with you. Your hands feel clammy, your heart is beating heavier than normal and your face feels hot. These are physiological symptoms of feeling vulnerable and threatened. In order to keep us out of harm’s way, our body often generates a psychological “stress response.” This physiological response manifests itself by restricting the ability to think creatively, monitor behavior, and process certain creative and important information. Learning how to effectively communicate with an angry coworker is a vital tool in the workplace and in keeping your fight or flight responses at bay. Fortunately, this is a skill you can master.
The first step in processing your coworker’s frustration is the realization that they are fuming for a reason. Whether the full scope and timeline of this anger is understood, assuming that there is a solid reason is the baseline of getting through this productively. If the main problem is not well communicated, it is hard to rationalize the meaning behind their behavior, so we often jump to the conclusion that they are acting irrationally. For example, we often suspend our patience if someone cuts in front of us while waiting in a long line at the store. We ignore the potential situational context that would rationally predicate that behavior, and jump to the judgment that they have a flawed character. It is important to work toward understanding the circumstance around their behavior, as our reactions can significantly help or hinder the easing of their anger.
Let’s pause to think about our own mental health for a moment. You shouldn’t feel guilty for taking care of your own wellbeing. If you feel that engaging with this coworker will come at the cost of your own safety (physical, psychological, emotional, etc.) give yourself the grace to not engage. However, if you see the potential upside to the team or the organization in resolving the issue with your angry coworker, there is one important thing to remember: No matter how upset they may seem, understanding the context along with the content is key.
When someone is angry there is usually a reason. Trying to understand that reason may feel like playing a twisted game of telephone where the information you are receiving has been altered by emotion. No matter the root of the problem, the words that were said or the behaviors exhibited are the “content.” Just as their emotion can contort the delivery of their content, our emotion can contort our reception and understanding of the content. It is critical that we understand that there is usually more to anger than just the content we’re made aware of. The frustration and anger fuming from your coworker is rarely based on a single isolated incident, but rather from several additional fuel sources that have been primed and ready to start the fire. Workplace anger is often built up over time. In situations where your coworker feels that character, work ethic, or humanity has been repeatedly called into question, they can build up resentment and defensiveness which can ultimately lead to an eruption of anger. Additionally, unrelated situations outside of work can have an outsized influence on the emotions of coworkers. All of these make up the “context” in which the situation exists. Our ability to fully understand both the content and the context is the best way to figure out how to resolve their anger and move back to productivity.
Although these situations are difficult, we can navigate them in such a way that both improves our working relationships and improves our working environment.
Eric M. Bailey is the bestselling author of The Cure for Stupidity: Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior and the president of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group, one of the fastest-growing human communication consulting firms in the United States. Eric has a diverse set of experiences that includes helping NFL All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald pet a rhinoceros, doing barrel rolls in an F-16, and chatting with LL Cool J on the campus of Harvard University. Eric is the creator of the Principles of Human Understanding™, a leadership and communication methodology based in brain science and psychology. Eric’s unique style blends fact and emotion and finds ways to appeal to the analytical thinkers, the emotional feelers, and everyone in between. Eric has a unique ability to communicate seemingly complex concepts in practical, easy-to-comprehend ways, aiding in self-awareness and knowledge retention.