By Nora Infante, PSYD
When I consider the most challenging issue for my clients to manage, the intrusion and influence of anger rises right to the top.
Anger is an emotion which is at once naturally occurring, common and expected. To be sure, it is an appropriate emotion in certain situations. But it can also be a highly disruptive and damaging emotion if not harnessed appropriately. No matter which, anger is always a source of information about ourselves and the situation we find ourselves in. When we feel anger, taking the time to understand what is occurring and why is a critical aspect of being an emotionally intelligent leader. Without self-awareness and emotional self-management there is not emotional intelligence.
There is a wonderful Zen phrase, “wiping the mirror”. This means paying attention and observing ones negative reactions before “wiping the mirror” of our ego and the emotions that cloud objective reality versus our interpretation of it. In a clear mirror we can see what’s there without distortion—not what we are afraid might be there or wish was there. Being able to see ourselves clearly helps us understand how certain thoughts and feelings get in the way of our best behavior and leadership. In a charged situation, an emotionally intelligent leader knows how to recognize when she is emotionally activated and to arrive at clarity, thereby retaining a balanced perspective.
The key point is that while anger is common and natural, if a leader does not demonstrate self-awareness and control over this emotion, it will overwhelm him; he will most certainly lose credibility, lose his ability to inspire and influence others, and most importantly, will lose the trust of his team and stakeholders. It is always unpleasant to be on the receiving end of anger. It can create a culture of avoidance and placation just to avoid confrontation. Constructive and necessary feedback does not occur on a team that is afraid of generating an angry response in the leader.
So, we can see that anger is a complex emotion with many faces. In life and in leadership, it is the ability to look in the mirror, see the distortions of anger, “wipe the mirror” and regain clarity. That allows us to not just build trust with others but see them clearly for who they are as well. The goal of emotionally intelligent leadership is not to never feel angry, but to instead learn how to identify its presence before taking action.
So, when you find yourself in danger of losing control of your emotions to anger, try the following steps.
- Notice the sensations in your stomach, chest and face. Become aware of your rapid heart and breathing rate. Observe if your fists or jaw are clenched.
- Breathe! Breathe deeply and slowly into the physical sensations of your body. Close your eyes if you wish. You may find counting out ten slow deep breaths helpful. Imagine the breath entering your nose into your belly, and as you breathe out, imagine the breath going out of your fingers and toes, if you find this useful. Conscious, measured breathing has been shown to rapidly relax the vagus nerve, producing the fastest route to reducing anger. Repeating a word or a phrase (slow down, relax or take it easy, for example) can also help recalibrate emotion.
- Continue to stay with the sensations in your body as best you can. Bring a sense of kindness and gentleness to your feelings of anger. Try to see the anger as an opportunity to understand about the feeling, how the burning rises up in your being, and how the breath may or may not have a cooling effect on the flame within you. It is crucial to not avoid the feelings and sensations of anger. It is in engaging with the anger that you will learn about yourself and how to control what seems like an uncontrollable force of feeling.
- Notice your thoughts. Thoughts like ‘it’s not fair’ or ‘I’ll not put up with this’ feed anger. Notice the effect when you let go of these thoughts. If you can’t abandon them, which is common, continue to watch the way thoughts and feelings feed each other and try to distinguish one from the other. Try to not re-engage the triggering situation until you are sure the negative narrative is not dominating your judgment.
- Step back. Take a step back from your internal experiences. Observe your thoughts and emotions from a distance. If you find your anger building, leave the room or situation in order to take a break and practice your breathing and manage your negative thoughts. I often suggest that clients create a calming sensory distraction (cool water, a nice scent, a pretty view, some peaceful music) or anything that they find relaxing and enjoyable. Walking or gentle exercise can help relieve tension.
- Communicate. As soon as the main force of your anger has dissipated, consider communicating your feelings with the other person/s. Begin with ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ accusations. As you continue to communicate, stay aware and awake to your own feelings, and let go of any aggression if you can – less aggression and more honesty are more likely to lead to a harmonious and productive conversation and result. Always take responsibility for your anger and behavior if it had a damaging consequence. Everyone is human and imperfect. To be an impactful leader, you must accept this, for your team, for you and for all those around you.
Certainly, coping on the spot with anger is a challenging task. Keep these steps in mind, and follow them with small levels of frustration rather than outright anger. When you do, you become more adept at clearing the cloud of anger and “wiping the mirror” to gain the leadership clarity and perspective for which your team relies on you.
For more practical suggestions about moving to a less reactive and more responsive way to handle your emotions, consult with Nora on how coaching might assist you.