The steaming cups of coffee sitting on the table attested to the earliness of the hour. My business partner and I, along with a key leader on our team, were on a work retreat that was meant to advance our thinking, strategy and processes. Instead, we had unconsciously opened our laptops and were responding to emails.Email is my nemesis. It’s a giant time suck that causes endless distraction. I’ve come to loathe it, which I know isn’t great. I also know that starting the day at a high-level strategy retreat by spending energy on email is a terrible idea. But there we were.
My business partner responded to several emails quickly, which meant that the ones I’d just answered were also answered by her, which could confuse our team.
Suddenly, I was angry. My voice was shaking, and I said I was upset about all of the back-and-forth emails. But that wasn’t it, or at least not all of it. My training in communicating anger without collateral damage kicked in. I knew that I was angry about something much more important than a few crossed emails. I needed to be quiet for a few minutes to figure out what I was so mad about.
Often, as stress mounts, co-workers blame one another and become focused on what the other person is doing to them or not doing for them. We then try to change or fix the other person, rather than focusing on what’s under the surface, the core of the conversation that needs to happen.
In her book The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner notes:
“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self — our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions — is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth.”
The big takeaway: When you are upset, pause and ask, “What am I really angry about?”
What Your Anger Can Tell You
Just then, as my anger bubbled over, our colleague joined us. It was painfully quiet, and she asked, “What’s going on?” I gave her the short version of what we were in the midst of. We were tangled up, but I wasn’t exactly sure what we were really tangled up about just yet.
Over the next hour, we sifted and sorted and talked and asked questions and listened. We didn’t blame one another or use inflammatory words.
My anger was informing me that I needed to make some important changes. I was overfocused on details I had no business working on. The truth was, we all were. Too much of our time was being used for all the wrong work.
We could see that we needed to make immediate changes. We needed to take more risks and hire people. We needed to invest in the business in ways that make our palms sweaty and our hearts race.
All of this came because I had made contact with how much things weren’t working for me. My colleagues engaged in the conversation beautifully. By afternoon, we had shifted our attention to creating outcomes and possibilities for the coming weeks and months. It was a breakthrough conversation.
I felt relieved. My anger gave way to gratitude. I was proud of us for sorting through a difficult conversation without collateral damage.
If you need to communicate about something you are angry about, try this:
1. Don’t focus on the other person.
2. Find out what you are really angry about.
3. Communicate the source of your anger without using inflammatory words.
4. Ask for what you need as clearly as possible.
As you master engaging in tough conversations at work without collateral damage, you will be contributing to a healthier work culture. This ripples out to create a saner and more peaceful world. It is an essential act of leadership.
Previously published on Forbes