Numerous factors in the workplace can combine to set us off. While eyeing an endoscope as a means of settling a score might be tempting, in reality, it is not a healthy response.
“Anger is a normal and helpful emotion. It’s good when it’s appropriately expressed,” says Dan Johnston, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science for Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Ga. “The problem is that it is often inappropriately expressed.” Workplace anger and aggression are prevalent, and healthcare workers are increasingly faced with more to do and less time to do it. When we get stressed, the “fight or flight” instincts kick in, and fight often overrules flight.
The challenge is how to recognize when you’re getting angry, and doing something appropriate about it. “The key is to have the insight to realize when you’re getting to that ‘too-angry’ level,” says Johnston, “so you can intentionally step back from that, do something to unwind. It could be breathing deeply, it could be counting to ten, it could be just getting out of that tense situation and then trying to reformulate what you want to do, so that basically you come back with what would be an assertive response as opposed to something that would be aggressive or that alienates people.”
Fight the temptation to “go postal” and take responsibility for your feelings. A response like, ‘You’ve really upset me,’ or ‘I’m having some trouble here, I don’t understand what’s going on,’ can open the door to communication. Moving from a ‘you’ statement blaming the other person, to an ‘I’ statement expressing your feelings or suggesting a possible solution, can diffuse an angry situation.
“Everyone has different signs or physical symptoms of anger. It’s important to self-monitor,” says Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, personal productivity manager, The Productivity Pro, and author of Leave the Office Earlier. “Look at an anger scale of one to 10 — in stage one you’re calm; when you get to five your heart pounds faster or you feel your blood racing; at 10 your veins are throbbing, or maybe you clench your fist or your jaw. We need to understand what our body signals are so that we can monitor ourselves as we begin to feel the anger start to develop. The real key with a lot of this is to not let it get to the stage where it has escalated so severely that you just blow up. The signs are different for all people.”
The trick, says Stack, is to have some strategies in place for those early stages of anger. One technique is to remove yourself, if possible, from the situation. “If someone is yelling at you, simply say, ‘Can we take a 10-minute break and reconvene when we can look at this problem in a more productive manner?’” she suggests. “People lose their tempers. Someone has to take responsibility to keep that from happening. Using the time-out technique, especially when you know that a person you are dealing with has an explosive personality, can work effectively. You can even use it at home. That’s one of the age-old methods in domestic violence counseling. When you are no longer engaged in constructive arguing, say, ‘I’m taking a time-out.’ Our parents used to tell us, count to 10 before you say anything. Sometimes it helps just putting space between you and the situation, coming back when you are in a calmer, more constructive place. Attempt to resolve it once the anger levels have subsided a bit.”
Dr. Albert Ellis developed rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in 1955. REBT teaches individuals to be responsible for their own emotions and gives them the power to change and overcome their unhealthy behaviors that interfere with their ability to function and enjoy life. 1
REBT is based on the principle that only you can upset yourself about events — the events themselves, no matter how undesirable, can never upset you. Recognize that neither another person, nor an adverse circumstance, can ever disturb you — only you can. No one else can get into your gut and churn it up. Others can cause you physical pain — by hitting you over the head with a baseball bat, for example — or can block your goals. But you create your own emotional suffering, or self-defeating behavioral patterns, about what others do or say.2 Two people can experience the exact same situation and react differently. A perfect example, says Stack, is a traffic jam. While some people become incensed, others more patiently wait for things to clear up. “Clearly it’s not the event itself that’s making people angry, it’s their interpretation and their reaction to it that creates this anger,” she says. “You can really work yourself up into a frenzy if you go over enough negative stuff in your head. It’s stinkin’ thinkin’, and the more stinkin’ thinkin’ that you have, the angrier you’re going to make yourself.”
Works Cited: 1. http://www.rebt.org/ Referenced Dec.18, 2003
2. http://www.threeminutetherapy.com/rebt.html Referenced Dec. 18, 2003
Countdown to Calm
By Dan Johnston, PhD
“When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.”
Good advice for controlling anger comes from the familiar childhood admonition of “counting to 10” before taking action. This well-known remedy works because it emphasizes the two key elements of anger management — time and distraction.
The highly charged, instinctive energy of anger of 10 leads to impulsive behavior that only aggravates an already tense situation. If given enough time to cool off, however, most people can learn to control their initial impulses.
The familiar technique of counting to 10 not only provides the time needed for delay but also offers a distraction from the anger-arousing event. While busily focused on counting, we are not mentally adding fuel to the fire of anger by mulling over whatever happened.
Counting to 10 becomes an even more effective way of disarming anger if we also take a slow deep breath between each number. Deep breathing counteracts the fight or flight stress reaction that underlies anger. Deliberately taking a slow, deep breath not only brings a soothing sense of relaxation but also helps us to focus our attention in the present moment.
Once more relaxed and in control, we are ready to “respond,” which is the key word in dealing with anger. Don’t react. Respond. Make a carefully considered choice about the best course of action to take and guide your response by the three anger-regulating principles of empathy, compassion and assertion.
Empathy is the ability to see a situation from another person’s point of view, and adopting an empathic stance opens the door to compassion by providing for a deeper emotional understanding of the source of conflict.
Being compassionate in an anger-arousing situation allows for the deliberate choice of a tolerant but assertive response to resolving the conflict.
Choosing to respond assertively is very different from the impulsive reaction of acting-out anger. An assertive response is characterized by standing up for our legitimate rights, but it does so in a manner that does not violate the rights of others. Assertive behavior is a direct, honest and appropriate expression of feelings and beliefs that helps to establish understanding, consensus and cooperation.
It is paradoxical but true that learning how to control anger requires the presence of people in our lives who make us angry because they provide our opportunities for change. When caught up in a conflict, we are in a“ teachable moment” — if we can recognize it. Such a moment allows for the transformation of angry responses into more appropriately assertive ones.
When involved in any conflict, we can defuse it by reminding ourselves that it is a learning opportunity. Such an acknowledgment challenges us to focus on choosing a new response to what may be familiar circumstances rather than just relying on the force of an old habit.
If we can cultivate the foresight to welcome each anger-arousing situation into our life as a teachable moment, we will more quickly learn the skill of selfdiscipline. Once we do so, we may no longer have to count to 10, because we will know how to control our anger.