Managing Your Anger: Leverage the Power of Silence

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

A good many leaders have trouble being quiet. Angry leaders find it nearly impossible. Some leaders think aloud. Angry leaders don’t think, but they do it loudly. Most leaders would rather talk than listen. Angry leaders believe they should talk and everyone else should listen. Given the way things work in most organizations, it is not surprising that only a few leaders regularly leverage the power of silence. Angry leaders almost never do.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Silence is calming. Silence demonstrates self-mastery. In the context of arousal, it sends a strong message about what matters and who is really in control. If you can remain silent while everyone else is vomiting bile, you will become the person in charge. Eventually, everyone will realize they have surrendered their minds to fervor and turn to you for guidance. When others allow anger to rule them, rule them with silence.

How can you do it?

  1. Recognize emotional arousal. You may see it in others first or you may be the first to become aroused. If you don’t see it coming, you can’t manage it.
  2. Stop talking. For most angry leaders, this is easier said than done. But it can be done. Give it a try. You will be amazed at the power of silence.
  3. Breathe. Start taking long slow breaths. This will slow your heart rate, calm you and provide a pleasant distraction.

How have you leveraged the power of silence in emotionally charged situations?

Managing Your Anger: Become the Curious Spectator

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

The inclination to become emotionally aroused by workplace issues and events is not limited to angry leaders, but they are at particular risk for falling into this trap. Leaders who react impulsively when they experience anger, fear, disgust or any other strong emotion usually make matters worse. It requires mental toughness to hold back and investigate instead of reacting immediately based on the leader’s initial emotional response.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

There are always two sides, sometimes more. After you have jumped to a premature conclusion because of your anger and you find yourself digging out of an embarrassing hole when you learn the whole story, you will learn pretty quickly to restrain yourself. There is another important reason to observe for a time before rushing in. The protagonists in workplace conflicts often spin their stories in their favor. When you fall for it, you damage your credibility as a fair leader and invite the manipulators to try it again.

How can you do it?

  1. View anger as an emotional traffic light. Anger is not a green light. It is a red light. Except in a life-threatening emergency, don’t enter the fray until you have calmed yourself.
  2. Launch an investigation. Assume the role of a detective or investigative reporter. Focus your energy on finding out exactly what happened instead of further stirring the pot. Declare that you will announce your decision when you have assembled all the facts. This action will immediately return you to the deliberative leadership role where you belong.
  3. Distract yourself. The quickest way to choke off destructive anger is to focus on some other issue that demands your full attention. This works much better than just stewing in your juices and ruminating pointlessly.

How have you trained yourself to become a detached observer instead of an emotional participant?

Managing Your Anger: Practice Detachment

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

One of the excuses leaders make for their anger mismanagement is that they “just care too much.” They say this to imply that they are passionate about organizational results. Everyone sees through this. What these bullies really care about is getting their way by throwing their weight around and expressing their frustration when others don’t behave the way they want.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If you are going to manage your anger better and lead a less stressful life as a result, you must learn to let some stuff go. This will not be easy to do. Look closely at your colleagues who are good at managing their anger. You will see that their most important strategy is not to become angry in the first place. And they achieve that by remaining indifferent, above the fray. They appear to ignore many of the daily irritants that you allow to drive you nuts. How do they do that? They are emotionally detached. They don’t care about that stuff. Really.

How can you do it?

  1. Make emotional detachment one of your goals. If you don’t see the importance of this and make up your mind to achieve it, you will continue to overreact as you always have.
  2. Acknowledge this is within your power. Just as surely as you can make any other decision in your life, you can decide to become more detached. “This is just the way I am made,” is a pathetic excuse.
  3. Don’t underestimate how hard this will be. Understanding what to do in life is usually not the hard part. Doing it is. Never is this truer than when you set out to change those instinctual patterns of believing, thinking, feeling and doing that you have fashioned and surrendered to most of your life.

How have you learned to exercise more emotional detachment in your life?

Managing Your Anger: Invite Feedback

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

For the recovering angry leader, feedback stings. First, no one enjoys hearing that their shortcomings were so obvious to everyone else. Second, most feedback is perception based and perceived reality is in the mind of the perceiver. This means that some of the feedback you will receive does not reflect the overall perception others have. It’s just that person’s perception. Third, some of the people you damaged with your previous outbursts will never forgive you or cut you any slack. And when you give them the opportunity to stick it to you, they will.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

No matter how painful and unfair it is, you have no hope of making significant headway in managing your temper more effectively unless you invite honest feedback from those who know you best. When asking your colleagues to help you begin your recovery, remind them you are human, that you will slip, that this process is a marathon not a sprint and ask for their patience. But don’t ask for or expect much.

How can you do it?

  1. Admit you are impaired. This is a lot like admitting you are alcoholic. Stand up at the next department meeting. Admit that you have an anger management problem and that you are taking full responsibility for it. Do not say you are powerless over it. You are not.
  2. Apologize and mean it. You have hurt people with your tantrums. And you have misled leaders who see you as a role model about how leaders should behave. Make it clear that you are sorry for both of these leadership sins.
  3. Ask for help. Ask them to tell you when they see any progress. Ask them to confront you when you fail. Ask them to persist in doing this even if you don’t receive their feedback gladly.  And make sure to thank them for their feedback particularly when you don’t feel like it.

How have you successfully solicited feedback from your colleagues about your anger management efforts?

Managing Your Anger: Identify Your Buttons

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

To reprise a recurrent theme throughout this blog series, angry leaders aren’t looking for their buttons—the recurring irritants that set them off. They are not the ones with the problem. The stupid people they have to put up with are the problems. The last thing such deluded leaders want to do is look in the mirror.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But you have freed yourself from the delusion that other people are the problem. This is a critical first step. Annoying stuff will still happen and you will initially react in the same ways you did before you figured out you are the problem. Now you need some sort of early warning system that will enable you to see when an opportunity to manage your angry response more effectively is coming. Knowing which hot buttons you have mistakenly programmed to set you off would come in very handy.

How can you do it?

  1. Ask the experts. Those who work closely with you know you better than you know yourself. They have coped with your leadership failures by predicting how you will react and then managing your immature reaction. These people can tell you exactly what your triggers are.
  2. Ask them to warn you. If you convince them you are sincere, they will give you a heads up and remind you that have promised to manage your typical reaction better now.
  3. Develop some healthy reaction options. Do this now before someone or something pushes one of your buttons. Write these options down and keep them handy. You must be able to switch to autopilot and use one of these at a moment’s notice.

How have you identified your hot button issues?

Managing Your Anger: Isolate Your Anger

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Undisciplined leaders allow their feelings to call the shots. If they feel angry, they act angry. If they feel scared, they act scared. These leaders only isolate their feelings from their behaviors when some external controlling force, such as the boss, is present. Their preferred mode—if they think they can get away with it—is to let themselves go, to give full rein to their overwhelming feelings of rage.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

No psychiatrist would say that feelings are not important, but they are not the only important things in your life. Unbridled, they are destructive forces taking leaders in directions they never meant to go and leaving emotional scars in the minds of victims subjected to the leader’s fury. You can build a wall between your feelings and your behavior, and you should.

How can you do it?

  1. Recognize that you already do this in certain circumstances. This means you are already capable of doing the right thing. You have just not disciplined yourself to follow through.
  2. Accept the blame. Your failure to isolate your feelings from your behaviors when you know this is an essential leadership skill is your fault. This is a leadership failure. Own it.
  3. Set emotional priorities. You already do this every day. So you feel angry. That is not your priority right now. You can come back to it and deal with it later. Meanwhile, you can choose to do what needs to be done in spite of how you feel.

How have you successfully separated your feelings and your behaviors in your quest to be a more successful leader?

Managing Your Anger: Become a Better Actor

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

When confronted, the angry leader always eventually gets around to the same lame explanation. “I was just being honest—that’s how I felt.” Angry leaders believe they are obligated to vent their “real” feelings since suppressed anger is bad. For such “honest” leaders pretending is to be avoided at all costs—except when it helps them get their way. Have you noticed that angry leaders have no trouble controlling their temper in the presence of their superiors?

What is the case for doing it anyway?

There is a kernel of truth here. Chronically suppressed anger is a very bad thing. Temporarily suppressed anger is a very good thing. Not becoming angry at all is the best thing. While you are working toward your ultimate goal of not becoming angry at all, pretending not to be angry is a great transitional step. And, as noted above, this is a skill you already possess!

How can you do it?

  1. Be honest. Admit that you already control your temper when you are in circumstances where you know that your temper tantrums will not be tolerated. You will find this admission embarrassing, but you know it is the truth. And the truth, they say, will set you free.
  2. Hold yourself accountable. When no boss is around to hold you accountable, you are the boss of you.
  3. Listen to your critics. Inform your audience that you will be trying to act around them the same way you would act if your boss were present. They know the difference. If you convince them you are sincere, they will give you the unvarnished feedback you need.

How have you become a better actor when feeling angry?

Managing Your Anger: Learn to Relax

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Anger is distressing. It is not possible to be angry and relaxed at the same time. This is obvious to everyone except the angry leader. She is enthralled with her right to be upset, with the stupidity of those who annoyed her and with her conviction that she is such an important person that the little people and circumstances should stop thwarting her. Relaxation is for slackers.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

It turns out that relaxation is one of the most effective tools for managing anger. But this will not occur to you if you focus all of your emotional energy on being aroused and blaming others for the way you feel. There is no evidence that angry people are happier, more productive and live longer. There is evidence that relaxed people do. Think long and hard about that.

How can you do it?

  1. Adopt relaxation as your major strategy. This does not require superior intelligence, profound insight or intense effort. And it is not expensive. What a deal!
  2. Learn how to relax. Google “Relaxation Techniques” and you will have all the information you need in less than a second.
  3. Practice. While relaxation techniques are simple and straightforward, you will not be very good at it initially. You must practice. And you must become an expert if you are going to relax in a situation in which you would have formerly become angry. It will be worth the effort.

What relaxation techniques have you adopted and how have those techniques enabled you to diminish your anger?

Managing Your Anger: Get a Coach

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Angry leaders are reluctant to admit they have a problem. They habitually blame others for the way they feel. If people would just do what they want them to do, the leader wouldn’t be angry. And if angry leaders don’t have a problem, they certainly don’t need help. The idiots with the problems are the ones who need the help. Well, that’s true enough.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But you are different. You realize you are the one with the problem. You understand it is complicated and deep-seated. You realize you are not likely to figure this out on your own. If it were that simple, you would have already done it. You have observed fellow leaders who are much better at managing their anger than you are. You believe you can learn from them. And you suspect they would be willing to lend a hand.

How can you do it?

  1. Identify potential coaches among your closest colleagues. This is the place to start. These are the experts who work with you every day. They understand you. They can read your moods and predict your reactions with uncanny accuracy. You may even want to hire a life coach.
  2. Ask for their advice. We all figure out pretty quickly that unsolicited advice is seldom appreciated and less frequently useful. So we mostly keep our observations and suggestions to ourselves until we are convinced that someone really wants to hear what we think.
  3. Act on their advice. Unless your coaches see you are trying, they will give up on you. They have better things to do than waste their energy on a colleague who is not taking them seriously.
  4. Consider getting professional help. Changing lifelong behavioral patterns is a complicated business. If you are not making satisfactory progress, you will want to invest some money, time and energy with a professional who does this kind of work for a living. But don’t give up your collegial coaches. Their real, live observations will always be invaluable to you.

How have you used coaches to help you manage your anger?

Managing Your Anger: Change Your Behavior

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Those leaders who fail to change their angry behavior persist in behaving badly for one reason—they get away with it. Human beings in general, and leaders in particular, don’t have much interest in behavioral change. It’s uncomfortable. And who wants to feel uncomfortable? After all, isn’t feeling comfortable the point of life? Leaders have another reassuring reason not to change. They are successful and powerful. Why should they change?

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Simply put, anger is unpleasant and deadly. Angry people die sooner, indulge in unhealthy habits more often and are more miserable. Chronically angry people are at increased risk for a long list of nasty diseases. To make matters even worse, they hang around with other angry people. No one else is available. If you choose to be chronically angry and miserable, joyful people will avoid you like the plague.

How can you do it?

  1. Admit the need to change. This step is easy, simple, quick and painless. It is the only step that is. But it is critical. If you are not convinced you must change, you will never commit.
  2. Specify the specific behavioral pattern you intend to change. Don’t be silly. You are not going to change your entire personality. Thankfully, that’s not necessary. But you can change one or two of your recurring maladaptive behaviors if you put your mind to it over several years.
  3. Make a public commitment. You don’t have to post this on Facebook, but you should tell the most important people in your life, those who will provide the support you will need and then hold you accountable when you backslide. And you will.

What angry behaviors have you changed and how did you do it?