Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Tame Your Temper

Dear David,

Help! I have a temper. I lose it in public and community meetings. I say bitter things and make accusations that I come to regret. It’s not that I have my facts wrong. It’s that I get that burning, buzzing rage that causes me to state my facts in fury. My wife says I embarrass her. In truth, I embarrass myself. What can I do?

Signed,
Temperamental

Dear Temperamental,

We’ve all been in your shoes. It’s too embarrassing for me to describe my own offenses; I’d look like a Crucial Conversations hypocrite. But I have a good defense: I’m human.

I’ll share the strategies that work for me, and several that have been proven to work for most people.

Forewarned is Forearmed. I began studying angry emotions in 1976, when I was a first-year graduate student in psychology at Stanford. Here was my idea for a study: I would find a way to make people angry in a lab setting, and then test different strategies for calming them. Sounds simple, right?

Here’s how I planned to make them angry. I’d invite pre-med and pre-law students in for “free coaching sessions” to help them pass the standardized admissions tests they had to take. Then, while they were drilling for the test, I’d interrupt them, disrupt their concentration, and bother them. At the end, I’d give them feedback that they didn’t have what it takes to succeed as a doctor or lawyer. I shared my idea with Al Bandura, my advisor, and he said, “Good luck getting that through the human subjects committee.”

I met with the committee, explained my plan, and they agreed to let me proceed—but with one change: I had to get informed consent from each participant in advance. In other words, I had to tell them up front that the purpose of the experiment was to make them angry.

Here is what I learned: Knowing up front that someone is going to try to make you angry inoculates you from getting angry. No matter how I mistreated my subjects, all I could do was amuse them. If you can anticipate that a situation might make you angry, you can prepare for it. Decide in advance how you will handle your emotions and actions.

Go to the Balcony. Emotions are like a rollercoaster. Once you’re on board, riding your rage, it’s hard to get off. It’s a whole lot easier if you can find a way to avoid getting on in the first place.

A strategy that works is to distance yourself from the events that are making you angry. I don’t mean a physical distance. Instead, create a psychological distance by taking on a pose or persona. William Ury, cofounder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, calls this strategy “going to the balcony.” Step back from the heat of the moment, distance yourself, rise above it, and watch it objectively as if from a balcony.

When my temper is at risk, I try to become a “concerned scientist,” someone who cares deeply but who embodies scientific curiosity. Once I’m in my white lab coat (a coat only I can see), I’m in control—curious, instead of angry.

Recognize your Triggers. Our triggers are the hot buttons or land mines that set us off. Some are real in our environment, while others are our own overreactions. The more we can anticipate our triggers, the more we can prepare positive reactions and avoid blowing up.

Here is an over-the-top example. I was working in a prison, and a group of prison guards came to me with this problem: One of their colleagues had “come unglued” when an inmate had spit on him. The news had traveled like wildfire, and now lots of inmates were spitting on this guard all the time—to see if they could get him to react. And they could. He came unglued every single time.

Imagine this is your trigger: You get upset when people spit on you. In this case, we decided that if we could deal with the trigger, then maybe the guard could control his reactions. We called our approach, “Don’t get mad; get even.”

We got permission to shut down entire units whenever a spitting incident occurred. The inmates in the unit would be confined to their cells for 24 hours and miss a couple of meals. It was a success. The guard was able to manage his temper, because he knew that punishment would be swift and certain. It also encouraged inmates to prevent other inmates from spitting on guards. The incidents died out within a couple of weeks.

Challenge your Story: A quick reminder on how emotions work:

  • See & Hear: Something happens. We learn of it through our eyes and ears, and it enters our visual and auditory cortexes in our brain.
  • Tell a Story: We try to make sense of what’s happening. Our prefrontal cortex analyzes the evidence and creates a story to make sense of it all.
  • Feel: If the story involves some kind of risk, it’s sent to our amygdala, which fires up our emotions—and shuts down most further processing by our prefrontal cortex.
  • Act: Our strong emotions propel us towards fight or flight—angry outbursts or escape.

The key insight here is that it’s our story, not the raw facts, that causes us to feel threatened and that generates our strong emotions. And our story is often faulty. The skill, and it’s a tough one, is to question and challenge our story. Ask yourself two questions:

  • Do I have enough facts to be certain my story is true?
  • Is there any other, more positive story, that fits this set of facts?

Asking these questions helps you distance yourself from your story—to see it as a hypothesis or best guess—instead of as the gospel truth. And, as soon as you introduce some doubt into your story, it stops generating those strong emotions.

I hope some of these ideas will help you with your anger.

Best of luck,
David

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