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No. 7 – Dealing with Anger in the Workplace

December 1, 2010

How do you respond when carrying out your duties for radiation safety as a health physicist and someone says, “Your program is a stupid waste time!” When you are confronted with antagonism in the workplace, what do you say? What messages come to mind? What would you like to say, but know that it would only cause more trouble? Health physicists are often viewed as police whose job is to make other people’s lives more difficult. Consequently, radiation workers may see our efforts as an interruption, a nuisance, and an interference in getting the job done. They would like us to go away and leave them alone. And, they express their feelings with anger. What do we do?

Our typical reaction when confronted by someone’s anger is to also get angry. It’s not easy to stay cool when someone is shouting in your face. This is especially difficult when you believe their anger is not justified and they are blaming you for the situation. When your own feelings of annoyance, frustration, and anger get hooked, your opportunity for effective communication is essentially gone. Can you turn off your feelings when faced with another person’s anger? The answer is yes, but not easily.

When confronted by others our natural instinct is to defend ourselves: After all, we are only trying to do our job, and radiation safety is for their benefit. There are three things we can do. The first is to decide to be non-defensive. For me, this means figuratively reaching into my head and turning a switch which shuts off my own feelings and opens a channel to hear the other person’s feelings. If I get caught by surprise, and forget to turn the switch, I automatically get angry and respond defensively. Deciding to be non-defensive means that it is OK for the other person to express their feelings. I then reflect the feelings I am hearing, in the best way I can (see Communication Insights, No. 4, The Language of Feelings).

The second option involves not giving the other person anything to push against. If we respond with criticism, anger, or self-justification we give the other person more ammunition to feed their own anger and the communication disintegrates. To avoid responding in anger you could say, “I know it is frustrating and we do ask a lot from you to meet our safety requirements.” It is OK to agree with their feelings, although not necessarily with their technical rationale. We do not have to make the other person wrong for their feelings.

The third option is to begin building a bridge for rapport and this will be the subject of next week’s post.

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