Anger has several stages and can be experienced as anything from severe annoyance to blind rage and violence. Supervisors often need daily to deal with some stage of anger in the workplace, over a variety of issues. The skill to deal tactically with anger can mean the difference between a mild confrontation and escalation to a full-blown incident. It can make the difference between a sharp, but momentary conflict and an ongoing feud that sucks the life out of everyone at the workplace. Tactical confrontation skills can make the difference between a quick resolution of an angry situation and escalation into violence.
The Two Basic Mistakes
Mistake #1. Trying to “reason” with an angry person
Anger is a complex experience involving multiple areas of the brain in a complex cascade of interactions between them. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain involved in logical processing, planning and strategy, judgment, etc. It’s the part of our brain that we reason with, and choose behaviors and responses calculated to support our goals and values.
Lying deeper in the brain, and part of the limbic system, are a pair of structures called the amygdalae. Our emotional responses to things we experience originate here. The “fight, flight or freeze” response to threats is generated in the amygdalae. That threat need not be to our physical bodies, or to another person. That threat can be to something as intangible as our self-view, and the fight response will be triggered. That’s anger. When a threat is detected in the amygdala several neuro-physiological reactions are triggered. Neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released, along with a suite of hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. The combined effect of these responses creates profound changes in the way the brain processes information. But the most important change for this discussion is that brain activity shifts from the cerebral cortex and its logical processing of information, to the more primitive parts of our brain, including the amygdalae. When we are angry, it’s not that we simply choose not to listen to reasonable arguments about the situation we are reacting to. We are simply not capable of doing so. Daniel Goleman writing in his 1996 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,”1 suggests that 75% percent of the logical reasoning capacity of the cortex can be lost during angry episodes. Goleman has even coined a phrase for the phenomenon: “Amygdala Hijack,” denoting the phenomenon of cerebral suppression during an angry state.
This can create a self-feeding cycle of escalation during conflict when the person who is the object of an angry person’s wrath points out the irrationality of the anger. It drives defensive reactions in the angry person, and the anger will intensify. Very often the target person then reciprocates the attack. When this happens, both persons’ behaviors are being driven by their amygdalae, and there is no cortex in the game. This is often the point where violence enters the picture.
It goes without saying that sometimes the “reasoning” approach does work. That’s why we keep trying it. There is an amygdala-suppressing mechanism in the pre-frontal cortex right behind your forehead, which, under conditions of low to moderate stress can switch off the amygdala. Of course, everyone has their own threshold of control, but the conditions that set that threshold are beyond the scope and purpose of this writing. The “reasoning” approach is at best unreliable, and in some cases can escalate the situation.
Mistake #2. Meeting verbal force with force
In other words, we get angry back and reciprocate the verbal attack, or we make demands, give commands or deliver threats. With commands, demands or threats, we might be perfectly calm but the situation still becomes escalated. The most common mistake that nearly everybody makes is usually one of the worst things you can do. We command the person to “calm down.” No matter how calmly the line is delivered, it’s still in the imperative voice and will be received as a demand. When angry, we are unable to process the reasonableness of that suggestion, or understand how that could be in our best interest. Mr. Amygdala is in charge.