For some time now I have been coaching a manager who has had several challenges with her director. One Friday night recently, my wife and I had gone out of town for the weekend for a little rest and to do some planning for the upcoming year. At about 12:30 a.m. the phone rang. This client was calling to tell me that she had texted her boss and quit her job. I was shocked and somewhat disappointed by her decision. I tried to help her see the upside of all she had been able to accomplish, but her mind was made up. When I asked her why she had decided to leave she responded with tears in her voice, “For two and a half years I have been yelled at and belittled in front of others. I have zero confidence. I feel like a glass that is totally full and running over. I can’t hold on anymore. I just can’t take it any longer.”
The next day, the boss called a meeting with my client to understand why she had decided to quit. When the client shared her feelings at how she had been treated, she was met with highly reactive behavior and defensiveness: the boss crossed her arms, turned red, and increased her volume as she said, “I guess I am old school. When I tell someone to do something, I expect them to do it. I realize that I am passionate at times, but I expect people to do as I ask without complaint. You need to man-up and learn to take a little heat during the battle.” The boss pled with her to stay with the company, but in the end, my client did not feel like she could continue.
Experiences like these are far too common. As a coach, I often have people ask me for assistance in how to handle an individual that resorts to “hot” emotional outbursts and belittlement when things don’t go as planned. Surprisingly, many people don't even recognize that their behavior is overly aggressive, even in the midst of the behavior! For example, people who are naturally more assertive often do not realize that other people interpret their increase in volume as "yelling." All they have to do then is add a sarcastic or patronizing tone and a few expletives, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Whatever you decide to do when you are angry or frustrated, you should always remember that yelling at people will not fix the situation. In fact, it could end up creating more resistance and challenges than remedying the current situation.
If you are a highly emotional individual, here are some tips to help you manage your own reactions to unexpected or unwanted situations:
1. Be more aware. Spend a moment recognizing and reflecting on your behavior. Ask yourself these questions: “In what situations do I become emotional? With whom do I express my feelings most forcefully? What do people end up doing when I begin to become emotional with them?” Increase your awareness of your own behavior.
2. Notice your thoughts. Positive thoughts lead to positive actions, while negative thoughts usually lead to negative action. Most individuals don’t take the opportunity to notice their thoughts. Here is the key: every time you feel an emotion, it was preceded by some thought. In fact, your thoughts can be pinpointed by recognizing the emotion that follows the thinking. For every negative emotion, there is a thought that precedes it. Use your emotions to identify your thoughts.
3. Understand what is driving you. Is there a particular person who tends to "bring out the worst in you"? Once you can identify that person, you can begin to uncover the specific thinking that is driving your behavior. “Hot” emotion in human interaction is an indication that something you value has been violated--or at least that you perceive that something has been violated. It is not uncommon to become frustrated or upset when our expectations are violated--after all, the efforts of others are often a direct reflection on us or our leadership. But your emotions are only the tip of the emotional iceberg. Below the surface you might find some very distinct judgments and opinions about the person or the situation. You can surface your thinking by finishing the sentence, “I am angry because…” as many times as you can. Try writing your statements on paper. Doing this will make visible the thinking that is underneath your hot or difficult emotion. Look to yourself to understand the source of your emotion.
4. Check the accuracy your thinking. Once you have a fairly substantial list of statements that support your emotions, you can begin to look at those statements objectively to decide if they are really true or not. For example, perhaps you wrote down, “I am angry because Alex doesn’t know what he is doing!” Now you can ask yourself, “Is this statement absolutely true?” If you can find one piece of data (evidence) that tells you your statement might be incorrect, then you will know that further consideration and exploration of the situation or the person’s behavior are warranted. Look for evidence to support your thinking and don’t believe everything you think.
5. Clarify your expectations. Before you start to go ballistic, you might find it helpful to think about the directions you gave to begin with. If you did not get what you wanted or expected, it could be because your request was not clear or specific enough. A lack of specificity on your part allows for misinterpretation on the part of your listener. Get clear on what exactly you expect.
6. Focus on the process and not the person. Belittling a person, particularly in front of others, will not increase results in the long term. You want to understand what process was followed, how the results came about, where things went awry, and what might be done differently in the future, but berating an individual will not help you identify or fix a problem. Improve the process to change your results.
7. Notice the reactions of others. Because we have difficulty seeing ourselves as we are seen, learn to use the reactions of others as a mirror to examine our own behavior. If someone is becoming emotional or defensive with you, take an objective look at what you are projecting to them. Is their response a reflection of your behavior in the given situation? Observe others as a reflection of yourself.
8. Check your results. Our results reflect perfectly what we think, feel, say and do when we deal with others. If you are not achieving desired results, reflect on your own behavior—what you did or didn’t do—that might have contributed to your results. Use your results as a stepping stone to understanding yourself.
There is nothing wrong with being passionate or enthusiastic about what you are doing. But when your intense emotions berate, belittle, or demean an individual, then your behavior has crossed the line of appropriateness. Yelling and demeaning others is not the key to achieving results and building relationships, and there is no justification for such behavior. The focus of our conversations should be to uplift, encourage, and inspire others while maintaining a sense of respect and dignity for the individual.