What to do When You’re the Target of Anger
In my last blog, I wrote about how to manage your anger at work. But (just a wild guess here) it’s not like you’re the only one who ever gets angry. It comes with the territory for humans, which means it’s normal for you—and everyone around you—to get mad sometimes.
While anger is a standard human emotion, how people express it varies wildly. In the best case scenario, others share their emotional response honestly without being abusive, destructive, or accusatory. Even then, it still doesn’t feel great to be on the receiving end. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “I hope someone gets mad at me today!”
It feels even worse when anger isn’t expressed constructively. Toxic anger can be used to intimidate and bully others. In the survey I conducted, I heard all sorts of stories of angry outbursts in the workplace: yelling, screaming, slamming doors, pounding desks, shattering office equipment, throwing things, punching walls… How does witnessing that affect you? Some participants said they felt scared, others humiliated or enraged. Almost everyone said that violent explosions “paralyzed the whole room” and left everyone on edge.
Work should be a safe place; these outbursts put your body and brain in a state of emergency. However, unlike animals who calmly go back to grazing once a threat has passed, humans ruminate and remember. There are pros and cons to being human: It takes you a lot longer to calm down and feel safe again than it takes a gazelle. And if toxic anger erupts repeatedly, your brain function, job satisfaction, relationships, and mental health all suffer.
So, what can you do? Below are some tips to help you to take care of yourself when others are angry. First, how to avoid escalation during routine, healthy conflict; secondly, some strategies for dealing with toxic anger.
How to Avoid Escalation
When you’re dealing with run-of-the-mill irritation and frustration, you can keep from getting hooked and intensifying the situation by staying calm and giving space. Easier said than done? Yup. But definitely doable with a little intention, practice, and the right mindset.
How to Stay Calm
When others are on the offensive, even mildly so, it’s easy to either get defensive or fight back. Both responses add fuel to the fire. To detach from a fight-or-flight response, remember the following:
The emotion isn’t the problem.
Whether or not you agree with the other person’s reaction, feelings are feelings and cannot be disputed. Others have the right to get angry from time to time, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. And often, if you consider the other person’s perspective, you can relate. I have often found myself expecting others not to get angry or irritated over things that would definitely upset me. What a double standard! Anger can be uncomfortable, but it’s not wrong or bad. Remind yourself that everyone gets angry, even you.
It’s not about you.
The anger may be directed at you, but it’s not about you. Even when the other person is responding to something you said or did, the anger is still their response—and their responsibility. You, of course, are responsible for your own feelings, actions, and reactions. And if you have done something wrong or hurtful, do take responsibility for your actions and apologize, make amends, and adjust your future behavior. However, you cannot be responsible for others’ feelings and reactions. Don’t take them on.
Use your body and your brain.
The same techniques I shared last time for managing your own anger can help you stay calm in the face of another’s anger. Specifically, breathe, release tension from your muscles, label what you’re seeing (“She’s really frustrated!”), and physically move. Two other nonverbal tips can be useful here: 1) Open your arms so that they are not on your hips or crossed over your chest. I admit this can be exceedingly difficult when you feel attacked, but open body language signals that you are not an adversary. 2) Reduce the pace, pitch, and power of your voice. Speaking more quietly, slowly, and at a lower pitch will help everyone in earshot—including you!—feel more safe and calm.
How to Give Space
Naturally, the best way to help others calm down is to say, “Calm down.” JUST KIDDING! Those two words are almost guaranteed to intensify an angry response. You’re basically saying, “You’re making me uncomfortable, and my comfort is way more important than whatever is bothering you.” When you’re dealing with normal, natural, non-abusive anger, the best thing you can do is give space. Here’s how:
Give the person your attention, preferably without the deer-in-the-headlights look. Breathe deeply, and nod to let them know you get it, even if you disagree. Often people just need to vent until they let it all out, and then they’ve exhausted the anger and are ready to listen to your point of view or simply move on. And even if it’s not quite that simple, nothing provides more salve for the spirit than being heard and understood.
Back off the eye contact.
Staring at someone who is having a strong emotional response can feel like an invasion of space. In addition, too much direct eye contact can inflame the situation since eye contact connects you to the topic and invites a response. Find something else to look at during difficult conversations that represents the issue. Don’t nervously avoid eye contact; simply give space by focusing on a prop or visual aid. One way to do this is to ask if you can take notes to be sure you haven’t missed anything. This proves you are listening and taking them seriously while offering a way to break eye contact.
When possible, increase the literal, physical space between you and the angry person. Again, don’t do this in a scared bunny, avoidant kind of way, but a calm, confident, respectful way. This is easier to do if you’re already looking at something else. Depending on the person or situation, offering to go for a walk together while you talk can provide space, movement, and a natural break in eye contact.
Generally speaking, if you can manage your own emotional response and provide the space for others to manage theirs, anger peters out rather quickly and you can then move on to resolution.
How to Respond to Toxic Anger
In a perfect world, you would never lose your temper and neither would anyone else. I would never hear stories of bosses ripping phones out of the wall and throwing them across the room or staff members hurling office supplies at their coworkers. Sadly, in some toxic cultures rage is as much a part of the environment as the carpet and light fixtures. Anger management issues can be especially prevalent in high stakes professional sectors (such as law, medicine, and technology) where one’s identity can easily become fused with achievement and competence; anything that threatens that identity leads to FURY. In addition, wrath itself can be used as a bullying tactic. It can be terrifying; you can’t reason with uncontrolled, uncontained, irrational rage.
So what can you do?
Resist the desire to retaliate.
If you match another person’s bad behavior, there’s just more bad behavior. It’s basic math. Act and react the way you wish the other person would. I know, you really want to let them have it! And I totally agree with you—they deserve it! Also, when you keep a lid on your own reaction, it can feel like you’re letting them “get away with it.” Yet responding in kind won’t resolve the issue OR make you feel better. Choosing to address your own anger in a healthy way is the best way to take care of you.
Recognize the childishness.
Routine rages are a sign of insecurity and immaturity. While they may still be tough to endure, remembering this can help you keep your cool. One survey respondent said, “I expected so much more of the CEO. His rage made me feel less intimidated. He’s just a regular person with issues like everyone else.” Another said, “Tantrums make me laugh. This is not the expected response, so it often stops the outburst.” Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal, suggests that reimagining the other person as a two-year-old can help keep you calm and grounded. Tantrums are, after all, classic toddler behavior…
Remain calm and confident.
Someone who uses anger as a weapon isn’t fighting fair, so don’t expect them to listen or try to understand your point of view. There’s no use in defending or explaining yourself—that’s irrelevant as far as they’re concerned. They are simply looking for a target. Depending on the situation, you may want to simply ignore them; otherwise, If you can safely do so, calmly and authoritatively state your boundaries, such as, “I’ll discuss this when you’re no longer yelling.” If they are using abusive language, sometimes asking them to repeat it (“Excuse me—what was that you just said?”) can take some wind out of their sails. It is vital that you speak authoritatively and breathe to keep from sounding whiny, fearful, or angry, which will only escalate matters.
I have some bad news. Shola Richards reports in Making Work Work that when workplace bullying is reported, it is ignored 44% of the time and exacerbated 18% of the time. These are dreadful stats. If you want or need to officially escalate and are unsure whether it will help or hurt you, here are a few tips:
- Don’t do it alone. Find others in the office who can and will support you.
- Document everything.
- Frame the bad behavior in terms of the bottom line. How is it affecting your organization financially?
Sadly, the “good guy” doesn’t always win in some toxic cultures. But there is power in numbers, both in terms of people and money.
If necessary, leave. Walk away from the interaction, hang up the phone, end the meeting. And if you’re in an abusive culture, you can move to a different department or find another job. In my research and in my survey, over and over again I read stories of people who stayed overlong in a toxic environment. If your work culture is causing your physical or mental health to suffer, and reporting it doesn’t help, don’t stick around. Over time, a toxic environment can zap you of the energy, motivation, and confidence you need to find a better situation. You are your most important resource. Take care of yourself.
Whether you’re dealing with normal anger or the noxious variety, give yourself some space and grace after a particularly difficult exchange. You’ll need time to clear your mind and body. It might require as little as a single deep, cleansing breath. Or you might need to make space in your schedule for a long walk at a nearby park. (Check this blog for specific suggestions.) It takes energy to manage emotions healthfully. Be sure to replenish yours.
In the face of others’ anger, you have options. You don’t have to jump on the anger spiral and you don’t have to let people dump on you. By holding yourself to a higher standard of behavior, you increase your confidence, demonstrate leadership, build relationships, and contribute to a healthy office culture.