Have you ever been in a meeting with someone who is getting very angry with you? I had this situation only a week or two after I joined a new organisation. I could tell he was angry because he was having to work really hard to control his voice, his hands were shaking and his face was bright red. He stayed in control but it was obviously difficult for him. The worst thing was that I didn’t know what he was angry about; I couldn’t think of anything I’d done or said which would have upset him.
What do you do in the midst of that type of situation? I was new to the organisation and didn’t know anyone very well. There were around 10 other people in the meeting, all of whom kept quiet. I didn’t know what to do, so I carried on. I continued the discussion in a professional and non-confrontational manner. At some point he made his excuses and left the room. That left me in a room of people who I didn’t know well and who weren’t looking at me. I asked them whether they could tell me what had caused the reaction and they told me that they didn’t know and that they hadn’t seen him like that before.
In many ways it was a relief to know that the other people in the room didn’t know what I’d done to upset him. That meant that I wasn’t being completely stupid and causing the situation in an obvious way without even realising I was doing it. On the other hand, not knowing what had upset him made it far harder to decide what I should do about it.
His behaviour was unacceptable. I was in my first few weeks at the organisation and if I wasn’t so internally referenced his behaviour could have seriously impacted my confidence and view of the company. I was angry that he felt it was OK to behave like this towards me. I was embarrassed to have been treated like that in front of my new colleagues. I wanted to know what on Earth I’d done to make him so angry. He needed to be punished for his behaviour.
When I feel strong emotions in the workplace I use it as a signal to take time out and think about what I actually want out of the situation, rather than react emotionally in the heat of the moment. I decided that what I wanted was a good working relationship with him. What was the most likely way for me to get that?
I was aware that in reality it might not even have been me who he was really upset with. Perhaps he had a personal issue which meant that he was more emotional than normal. In those circumstances demanding to know why he was upset would be likely to lead to further anger and not likely to achieve my goal of developing a good working relationship.
I waited for a few hours to give him the chance to cool down a little and then I went up to his desk and said “I don’t know what I did to upset you this morning, but whatever it was I’m really sorry.”. I had no idea whether this would work, but I tried it to see. His response was to smile and to say “thank you”.
From that point on we developed a good working relationship. I never did find out what it was that I had done to upset him but that didn’t matter. We were able to move on with his dignity intact and I was able to get the working relationship I wanted.
For me the things that made this work are:
- rather than responding emotionally I took the time to work out what I wanted from the situation
- he was able to keep his dignity
- he knew that I didn’t know what I had done to upset him, so that if I did it again it wasn’t deliberate
- he had the chance to tell me what the issue was when I apologised if it was important to him that I knew
I had no idea whether the approach would work before I tried it and I was ready to follow up with other approaches if necessary. I don’t offer this as something I recommend you do in a similar situation but more as an example of standing back, removing your own ego from the situation and responding in a way which helps you to achieve your aims.