Setting Limits to Others’ Anger

anger #2 - shayneThis blog post is the second in a series on anger. The previous post, “Damn, I just lost my temper again” delved into the difficulties of mastering our own anger. Below, I explore setting limits when others get angry with us or around us.

What do you do when someone gets angry with you?

Freeze, go into paralysis, and try to escape the danger as quickly as possible?

Or tense with adrenalin, your skin turning red, and raise your voice right back? Fight frustration with irritation?

Our usual responses do not work

In reviewing my own experience and the hundreds of leaders and employees, parents and children I have worked with over the years, our predominant reactions to anger tend to be flight or fight. Both of these self-protective responses are counterproductive.

If I shut down and play small, waiting for the storm to pass, I allow the other person’s anger to persist. There is no opposition or limit provided, and this can allow abusive relationships to form, whether physical, emotional and/or verbal.

If I “get emotional” in response, the conflict often escalates. It is rare that workplace anger goes beyond words, but it does lead us to say things we don’t mean. Relationships are strained, baggage forms, and months or years later, unhealed exchanges of anger linger.

Many of us do both, depending on the situation and the person. We are threatened, and the survival instincts of our brainstem take over.

True power facing anger

“When you raise your voice,” my youngest son stared me in the eyes, his gaze teary, his hands over his ears, “it scares me.”

He spoke these words over a year ago, and they stopped me in my tracks, in part because they were so different from my eldest boy’s typical response to me. My first-born can quickly lose his temper, and I end up dialing us back from a power struggle (look out, teenage crisis…). Or he cries, and leaves the exchange.

But I actively talk about my temper, and how I’m working on it, so my younger son seems to have more distance from it. He sees it more as my issue than his fault. On the morning in question, he instinctively used his vulnerability to set a limit to my anger. His brainstem didn’t take over, driving him to run away or put up a fight. He somehow kept his head, and verbalized what was true for him. “I don’t like it when you do that.”

The power of his remark lay in how it confronted me with the unintended impact I was having on him. Without an aggression that I had to counteract, I was left with a mirror — and I didn’t like what I saw. He short-circuited the chain reaction that so easily happens when anger is introduced in a situation. This didn’t mean, however, that I let go of the “content” of what I wanted to say; I used his response to recenter myself in how I dealt with the issue we were having.

The mirror: accountability through vulnerability

A primary goal when interacting with people who are angry, then, is holding them accountable to a more constructive behavior. (We could also describe this as having clearer ‘boundaries’). Counter-intuitively, this takes a willingness to experience and express our vulnerability. Our default reactions of fight (suppressing our vulnerability and lashing out) and flight (being overwhelmed by our vulnerability and withdrawing) side-step this discomfort. As with transforming our own anger, our power in transforming that of others lies in our vulnerability. When we express our vulnerability directly, we access our ability to tell others what is or is not acceptable for us.

None of this, of course, is a guarantee that we can change someone else. But in being clearer about how others’ anger impacts us, and setting limits to it, we put others in front of a choice. If they want to interact with us, they need to be committed to certain behaviors that are acceptable to us.

What is your experience in responding productively to others’ anger (or other aggressive behavior)? How do you hold up the mirror? I would love to hear your comments.

  1. Jonathan says:

    Shayne, I really appreciate this and resonate with it. Sometimes it’s hard for me to maintain a positive or constructive goal for someone who has hurt me – to hold them accountable vs. hurting back or shaming. I see though that when I am clear with my feelings and boundaries, I feel more vulnerable at the time but maintain my sense of self/integrity.

  2. Barbara Johnson says:

    Thank you for your post. I am planning for a meeting tomorrow with someone whom I think will respond with anger. You are reminding me of some tools at my disposal to keep the meeting on track.

  3. William A Wheaton says:

    Thanks. I was abused as a child of 11, in a hospital situation, by a rough gang of older kids, for a month or so. Almost sixty years later, I still have a visceral response to anger, that startles me with its power. I need to learn how to deal with it better. It has hit me three times in the past two years. The first part is, I need to learn not to raise my voice or tense up myself. Anyhow, I am grateful for this.

  4. Right on, Shayne. . . In the office setting, it’s amazing how much more quickly progress can occur when even one person adopts this mindset. Keep up the good work.

  5. Judy says:

    I loved your blog on setting limits to others anger. My son can also be a good mirror for me.

    I notice that when I am tired at night, I have less patience. I can almost literally feel the patience drain from my body right around 7:30 pm (day is over, dinner is eaten, I begin to feel my tiredness from the day, and voila…). I spoke to my son about this and told him that just because I was short on patience didn’t mean he was doing something wrong, it really probably meant that I was just tired.

    Then, a few weeks later it was tooth brushing time (my own personal witching hour), and I was being very impatient with my son (who, in fairness, can be super slow in getting his ready-for-bed routine complete), and he turned to me and said “Mommy, I think you are very tired tonight.” And, of course, he was right. And it completely broke the spell. My impatience went away, and I was able to acknowledge that he was right. And it was funny too, because up until that moment, I hadn’t been conscious of how tired I actually was, and only vaguely aware of how impatient I was (much more focused on what he was doing wrong).

    There’s no question that my son is one of my best teachers (and certainly my cutest)!

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