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Leadership Thought #486 – Be Wary of Angry People

May 2, 2017

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Whenever you get a disproportionate angry response from someone, there is usually something else deeper going on.  People don’t normally go from 0-60 emotionally in a noticeably brief time span unless they are already vulnerable and/or irritable to begin with.  Moreover, although you may be the target of their invective, they may be trying to use you as a proxy for someone or something else.  Of course, it could also be the result of widening chasm built over time between that person and you that you weren’t fully aware of, and it ended up reaching a breaking point.  Whatever the reason, it is a troubling reaction and shouldn’t be taken lightly. We often focus too much on the “what” and not enough time on the “why.”

People under extreme pressure often overestimate their individual capacity to manage stress.  You’ve probably been there yourself.  You keep adding responsibilities thinking you had it all figured out.  It felt like you were balancing the burden well until you suddenly acted out of character and lashed out at someone for no real reason.  Sadly, the people closest to us end up being the victims of our flare-ups. Guilt doesn’t take too long to emerge and if you have half a conscience, you apologize after having cooled down.  Hopefully, these occurrences are rare.  If not, you need to step back and reflect on your behavior and even seek professional help if you can’t change the tide on your own.

The worst thing you can do in this situation if you are on the receiving end of angry behavior is to escalate the situation.  It doesn’t take much for a spark to become a roaring flame.  Nobody wins in a pissing contest, so why bother?  Instead, counter the emotion with the opposite more composed response. If necessary, walk away and/or end the conversation.  Given some time to reflect, the other party will often calm down and be open to a more rational conversation at another time.  Never act like it didn’t happen, but also pick the time to revisit the discussion if they don’t take the initiative.  If too much time elapses, the wound will become a scar that never fully heals.  And, far too many non-deserving people are walking around with way too many scars inflicted on them by angry non-repentant people.

With time, I’ve learned that some people are worth the trouble while others are not.  If a fellow human being has built up emotional capital with you, then they should be allowed to cash it in.  If you know the other individual is in a bad way or dealing with some heavy baggage, give them some room and think through your communication more carefully (especially if the message is constructive rather than supportive).  If the situation is episodic rather than a pattern cut them some slack.  However, if in the early throes of a relationship you get this type of reaction, run for cover, and don’t look back.  If another person targets you with angry rhetoric and assaults your character before they hardly even know you, it’s more about them than you.  Bad behavior like good behavior becomes a habit with certain individuals.  As my dad used to say, “some people are just looking for an excuse to be angry and the best thing to do is avoid them like the plague.”

I encourage you not to try and play amateur psychologist.  If it really is a deep issue you have triggered, you may not be the best person to help them work through it.  The last thing you want to do is unleash something you have no idea how to help fix if needed.  We can sometimes work through the issue with another person, if in fact, the issue is our relationship with them, but even then, depending upon the severity of the issue, a skilled 3rd party might be more advisable to help navigate the situation.

As psychiatrists are fond of saying, “there are no bad emotions just bad actions triggered by those emotions.”   I never cease to be fascinated (and concerned) by human behavior.  Grown-ups can become poorly behaved children in an instant.  Emotions can turn on a dime.  Please be advised that a major red flag is people who don’t feel guilty or apologize for aberrant behavior.  The signs are typically there early on.  We overlook them to our detriment.  The best indicator of future performance is past behavior.  In addition, physical violence should NEVER be tolerated.  People who cross that line need help and not the kind you can or should offer.  Human beings get angry for many reasons, some warranted, some not.  As an adult, how you accept and respond to this anger is and always will be up to you.

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