Reframing Anger

A boss, colleague, coachee, or direct report comes into your office. This person is yelling, red in the face, and angry. What is the best thing to do: Wait it out and let him rant? Demand that she stops and comes back when she can professionally chat about the situation? Throw a pitcher of water on the person?

I previously wrote a piece on “The Anger Room” where data indicates that allowing a person to continue to lash out or “rant and rave” as a way to relieve anger only perpetuates more anger. So what do you do “in the moment” with these folks? Immediately take their picture on your iPhone and put it in front of their face? I don’t suggest you do this unless you are a fast runner.

Robert Miswas-Diener addresses this issue in his piece on “I Feel You!”. He calls anger “the Severus Snape of feelings,” referring to the dark and brooding Harry Potter villain. Like everything else dealing with emotions, people have their own history and baggage. Miswas-Diener encourages us to turn to a tool that formal research has proven to be effective.

What we thought: A lot of us have learned to use a method called “clearing” as a way to calm someone down. This involves allowing the person to vent and experience a kind of catharsis to get the anger out of his system. The notion is that by allowing people the space to express the anger they will more directly move towards more rationale, problem solving conversations. As seen with the Anger Room, research has proven that this is merely a temporary fix. Granted, at first, going for the quick fix is the best thing to do. Other quick fixes are mentioned in the first paragraph—making it clear the person has to go away and calm down; asking the person to come back when he/she has given the situation more thought; suggesting the person walk around the block; pushing the person into the nearest pool; etc. The point here is not to engage and go down the anger toilet with the instigator.  Unfortunately, if this venting method is the extent of “handling” the situation, the person’s anger tends to explode again as he/she interacts with another colleague, complains on social media, or attends his next meeting. So, what additional method is required?

The better follow-up choice: “Reframing” or “switching shoes.” With this technique, you start asking the angry person some questions, requesting that the he/she imagine the situation from a third-party view. Some might even call this role playing.

“Imagine this entire situation was written up on the front page of the morning newspaper. How do you think a reporter would present you and the situation?”

“Let’s paint another picture. Play along with me here. What if we shared this scenario with the CEO? How might he characterize you or the situation?”

Research has shown that this method reduces feelings of anger and aggression at the gut level, mitigating repeat performances. By reframing the entire “anger incident,” the person gains perspective and ultimately, better solutions than the use of volatile emotions. Give it a try.

Virginia Bianco-Mathis is a Partner at the Strategic Performance Group, a Senior Consultant at Oyster Organizational Development, and Director of the Human Resources and Organization Development program at Marymount University. She is a thought leader whose work spans all aspects of human resources, and has deep experience in academia, consulting, and executive coaching.