The scene is painfully familiar, and timeless: A young kid drags himself home from school, nearly blind with frustration, rage and tears, having been victimized by a bully. His lunch money is gone, he’s hurting from having been shoved into his locker, and the one thing he wants more than anything else in life is to push the bully into a wood chipper.
He is, in a word, angry.
If this scene were to play out in its most classic form, Dad would take the youngster in hand, coach him in what used to be called “the manly art of self-defense,” and the kid would return to school and punch the bully silly. But in the scenario envisioned by school psychologist Izzy Kalman, there are no fisticuffs. Instead, the kid might acknowledge to the bully’s face that the bully had wounded his pride, the big galoot would feel remorse, and the two would hopefully come to an understanding – perhaps even become friends.
Kalman says it is vital we control our anger when faced with confrontation and potentially explosive situations. It’s for our own good.
“Anger is the major cause of people’s social and emotional problems,” he says.
The author of the book, Bullies to Buddies: How to Turn Your Enemies into Friends, Kalman explores the subject of anger in workshops held around the United States. He maintains it can be easy to control anger, as long as we’re willing to part with some of our more instinctive reactions when someone turns the flamethrower in our direction.
The healthiest way to deal with a tense situation, he says, is by using that old standby – the Golden Rule. But although you’d think it would be a natural reaction to treat others the way they themselves want to be treated, it’s not, explains Kalman. Anger is a primal, hard-wired instinct in people, while being nice is a learned behavior.
But once it is learned, the power shifts.
“I automatically lose when I get angry,” Kalman said in a workshop held in Irvine, California, earlier this year, noting that tormentors rejoice in our rage and frustration. But when we refuse to rise to the bait, he says, the conflict automatically stops. And we win.
“The Golden Rule is actually the ultimate in power,” says Kalman, who is also a psychotherapist. “The Golden Rule puts me in charge.”
Is anger ever an issue in Toastmasters?
We’d all like to think that the Toastmasters experience only produces positive and joyful situations. However, club members, like most groups of human beings, are a mix of many types of people – some very easy-going, others more competitive, some forceful in manner, others more passive.
Benita Stafford-Smith, an executive coach from the Winnipeg area in Canada, has been a Toastmaster for 20 years and belonged to clubs in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. “I have seen it all,” she says. “Generally, I would say that Toastmasters are respectful and keep discussion on a positive level. After all, Toastmasters is about communication.”
However, she adds, the organization’s members “are only human and, of course, occasionally it happens that communication is ineffective and sometimes strays into the unacceptable. The difference, I find, is that Toastmasters usually see the folly of their ways quickly and come to the table prepared to come to an understanding.
“The Toastmasters training, plus the many speeches on communication a person hears, reinforces effective communication [between people].”
Stafford-Smith, who is a Distinguished Toastmaster and a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers, says that if you’re involved in a discussion that turns heated, you have to rise above whatever mean or unfair things you feel the other person is saying.
“Do not take it personally,” she advises. “People need to learn how to get themselves out of the way, to remove their ego and personal stake [in the issue].”
Sandy Dunning is a 20-year member of the Long Beach Gavel club in Signal Hill, California. The club is 75 years old, so its members clearly know what to do in terms of interpersonal communication.
“We’re pretty sensitive to the feelings of others,” says Dunning, who has served as president of the group three separate times. “That’s one of the things that people have brought up about our club.”
The Long Beach club has had its share of thorny issues over the years. At one point, there was a man in the group who had a disrespectful attitude toward women and would consistently talk to them in a degrading manner, says Dunning. Understandably, the group’s female members were furious. So Dunning was asked to speak to the man.
She took him aside after a meeting one day to explain how upset the club was with him. (Dunning says this is a communications strategy her club always employs: When someone has sparked the anger of other club members, a club officer meets with that person individually, away from the others, to try to defuse the problem before a group confrontation erupts.)
It’s also important that you use the right words when positively asserting yourself with a difficult member – just as with any person you’re having difficulty with.
In meeting with this particular female-bashing man, Dunning says she didn’t want to come across as attacking him, yet she needed him to understand that his actions were harmful to the club.
“You want to maintain their self-esteem,” she notes, “but I also let him know that he was offending another person.” Sometimes you have to walk a fine line, she adds, when trying to calmly convey to someone why you or others are angry with them.
“You end up using the same kinds of phrasing strategies and wording that you use as an evaluator [for a Toastmaster’s speech]: Instead of coming out with a direct statement of fact or a criticism, you say something like, ‘It appears to me…’ or ‘My impression is that if you…’”
The Long Beach club, which includes Sandy’s husband, Bob – the two met at a Toastmasters International Convention – had another situation where a club member caused problems for others in the group. In this case, however, it wasn’t his words that were offensive. It was his smell.
Seems the man was…well…hygiene-challenged, and according to Dunning, his body odor made it increasingly unpleasant for those seated in his proximity at the weekly meetings.
Now, how do you deal with that issue?
Once again, the Long Beach club chose an individual – not Dunning this time – to meet one-on-one with the member and explain the situation to him. Apparently, however, the man didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that he try to smell better: He never returned to another club meeting.
What if you’re in a situation where you feel your temper simmering? Something has you about to blow – but you want to keep a lid on it. What to do? According to the American Psychological Association (APA), it’s okay to express yourself. Just do it in a productive manner.
“Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive – not aggressive – manner is the healthiest way to express anger,” an APA Web site tutorial says. “To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.”
The Association also recommends other techniques for dousing the fire when the fuse of anger starts to sputter: “Anger can be suppressed, and then converted or redirected. This happens when you hold in your anger, stop thinking about it, and focus on something positive.”
But the tutorial also makes it clear that consistently suppressing your anger, rather than directly confronting the problem is not healthy.
Theatrics can also be valuable. At Kalman’s workshop he did a bit of role-playing with an audience volunteer to illustrate the “soft answer turneth away wrath” approach. After a simulated heated exchange, he asked his volunteer to simply deflect his expressions of insult and outrage with expressions of understanding, sympathy and commiseration. The result, the volunteer admitted, was a feeling of being in control rather than being victimized.
Kalman summarized this approach with six rules that might be called the “rules of non-engagement” when applied to arguments or confrontations:
- Refuse to give others the power to get you mad. Anger, he says, is something we do to ourselves. Let it flare and it creates disrespect and enemies.
- Treat everything people tell you as the words of your best friend (even if they sound angry and hateful). Tell yourself that whatever they are saying is because they really love you and care about you (although that doesn’t mean you have to believe it).
- Do not be afraid. Fear creates strength in an adversary, and it indicates that you consider that adversary an enemy, a feeling that will be reciprocated.
- Do not defend yourself. This produces the same reactions as fear. However, dispassionately explaining one’s position rather than defending it is okay.
- Do not attack. It takes two people to fight. If one won’t, the fight’s over.
- If someone hurts your feelings, just show that you are hurt; do not get angry. Chances are good the other person didn’t intend to hurt you.
Kalman cautioned that these rules do not apply in situations where someone is actually dangerous. In that case, he says, go ahead and defend or attack – whatever it takes to win.
Kalman’s method may fly in the face of every John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but it works, he says. Yes, anger can make for superb theater, he adds, and it might even spur you to new heights of eloquence as you’re blistering your imagined foe. But the fulminating always ends the same way. Kalman lets sociologist and author Lawrence J. Peter have the last word on that:
“Speak when you’re angry – and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
Pat Mott is a Southern California-based writer and regular contributor to the Toastmaster. Paul Sterman is an associate editor at the magazine.
Ten Simple Ways to Mend Fences
By Michael LeFan
As surely as the sun rises in the East, we are all going to deal with irate people from time to time. They may be family members, work associates or customers – and they will be hot under the collar. The problem is this: How do you best deal with these folks? If you are serious about developing your communication and leadership skills – not to mention your personal relationships – you will benefit from the following fence-mending tools:
- Be quick to listen and slow to speak. When conflicts arise, ask what went wrong. Don’t interrupt. Listen. When the other person finishes, say, “I can see why you’re upset. Now I want to figure out how we can resolve this problem.”
- Be sincere. Look the other person in the eye and say, “I’m sorry.” If you are on the telephone, make “eye contact” in your mind. Be genuine.
- Explain your own view of why you behaved as you did – but don’t make excuses. Just try to describe what you think happened from your viewpoint, and without fixing any blame.
- Compensate. Offer helpful ideas to make up for the inconvenience experienced by the other person, to soothe ruffled feathers.
- Defer to another person in a position to help. If the problem is customer-related, ask the customer if he or she would prefer to speak with someone else in authority.
- Follow through. Make sure the other person knows that you will cure the difficulty – then do so quickly.
- Set a deadline. Express a timeframe for straightening out the situation.
- Fix the problem. Don’t fight – make things right.
- Follow-up. Keep communicating. Stay in contact while the problem is being solved.
- Remember – business customers don’t need us, but we need them.
is a freelance writer living in Temple, Texas.