What to do when confronted by an angry co-worker or manager

by Sep 8, 2015

Martial arts instructors teach the difference between acting and reacting. To act means to recognize the situation, understand what it means, become aware of your feelings, apply your consciousness, and choose your actions carefully. Conversely, reaction is an instinctual, indulgent, gut-feeling, auto-motor defense that usually results in making the wrong decision. The same applies in the workplace. Do not react. Be sure you get prepared to act, or carefully consider what to do and then respond with confidence and competence.

I’ve made several suggestions about how to do this in my book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work (with a foreword by Ken Blanchard). Here are a few of the ideas my book offers up:

When interacting with an unpleasant angry peer or manager, try using the following three steps:

  1. Acknowledge what’s happening. When a person is short-tempered or angry they are looking for confirmation that they are being heard. If a person feels like he or she is being heard, the stress and frustration may decline. You can give them this confirmation by using phrases like, “I understand that…,” “I appreciate that…,” “I can see that…” or “I recognize that…” Then follow up by pointing out their behavior. So you might say, “I recognize you are angry about this report by the way you are pounding your fist on the table.” Another example might be, “I can see this has been bothering you for some time by the way you are leaning over me.”
  2. State the problem with the behavior. Be sure you are not passing judgment or using language that is evaluative. Just describe the behavior using facts, and then state why it’s an issue for you (or the organization). Examples include, “When you get into my personal space like this it makes me uncomfortable and I can’t have a reasonable conversation with you,” or, “You have had three outbursts this week between the staff meeting, the conference call with Susan and now. When you yell like that it really creates a lot of tension and makes it hard for me to get my work done.”
  3. Offer a solution. I always say people can’t do a don’t. If you tell someone to stop doing something, you have to give them something to do instead. Some examples include, “Please stop yelling at me when you believe I haven’t lived up to your standards. If you would just take the time to breathe, and talk to me about the issue calmly, I promise it will make a difference in my ability to implement your suggestions.

The key to using these three steps to combat workplace bullying or fight off an angry co-worker is that they have to come one right after another, almost all in one breath. Don’t leave time for interruptions. Further, do these steps in a calm voice. An angry person is experiencing escalated anxiety, so keep calm. Practice on someone at home a few times before you deliver it to the angry person at work.

Also try using the person’s name several times throughout all three steps. Hearing our own name causes us to stop and pay attention, and using it several times is a way to subtly take control of the situation.

Further, maintain conscious awareness of your body language at all times, and use it to your advantage. However we feel inside, our body language shows people how we feel on the outside. If you can become aware of your body language, then you can change it. Learn to use assertive body language to stand up for yourself, and as an added bonus, it will actually make you feel confident too. Next time the angry boss lays into you, focus on your “battle stance.” Hold your chin up, lean forward slightly, toes pointed forward, hands on hips or at your side, and deliver firm extended eye contact. Tilt your head slightly, as if to say, “I can’t believe you have the audacity to speak to me like this.” This is a way to subtly confront aggressive people at work by showing that you are not someone to mess with—without saying a single word.

Finally, be sure to recognize this person’s innate need for respect. We all need to feel valued. During an escalated situation, it is imperative you recognize this person’s need for you to show respect. Be calm, use your assertive body language, and be respectful.

Beyond these tips to use during the interaction itself, something you can be working on is focusing on yourself, your work, and your own behavior, rather than ruminating in how much you despise this person and how hard they make your life. It’s easy to say that our thoughts and emotions are not a choice, but that simply isn’t true. You have control over what you think about; what you think about does not have control over you. At the end of the work day, for example, you might drive home thinking about how horrible you were treated that day and how unhappy you are at work. You might go over in your head the fact that the individual bullying you had even more wrath than yesterday. What you want to try to think about instead is your own behavior. What could you have done differently? What will you do differently tomorrow? What was your body language like during your interaction with the bully? How will you address the bullying tomorrow? What will you do to make yourself happy and healthy?

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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