I used to get angry. A lot. Since those earlier years, I have learned some things about anger. And I have learned I don’t have to let my anger emotion control me. Instead, as amazing as it may sound, I have the power to control my anger.
A Controlled Response to Anger
Let me tell you about a time when I gave someone else the opportunity to be angry with me, how I had the opportunity to respond in anger, and how we both handled that situation. While sitting at a red light in Cincinnati, Ohio, I suddenly heard a loud honk from a vehicle that was fast approaching from the side. When I looked up, I saw that the honking was coming from a large conversion van that quickly swerved around me to avoid hitting me. As I had often done in the past, the van’s driver shot me the one-finger salute on the way by.
When I looked up, I realized I had rolled out into the intersection because I had been texting at the red light. I thought, “Wow! That man just saved our lives!”
Now, if my first thought had been that that person has no right to shoot me the finger and blow his horn at me and to take offense, my anger would have kicked in. It would have been easy to be offended. Instead, because my first thought was about how that man had just saved my life, I was able to process the situation more constructively.
So, what did I do? I caught up with that van at the next red light down the road. As I did, I was trying to signal to him to roll down his window. At first, he wouldn’t, but then when he finally rolled his window down, I looked over at him and called out, “Hey, back there. I was texting and didn’t realize I had rolled out into the intersection. I was wrong, and I’m really sorry. Will you forgive me for that? And thank you for being alert because you probably saved my life when you swerved around me.” When I said that, tears welled up in his eyes. At that point, he probably wished he hadn’t waved at me the way he did, but I was okay with it because I was the one who had caused him to have to swerve to avoid hitting me. This is an example of a time when I had learned not to let anger control me.
Taking Responsibility for Your Anger
You may be asking yourself, “Okay, how do you go about calmly reacting to people and situations that can send you over the top?” The first thing to do is to think about how to take responsibility for your anger. So, you’re asking, “How do you do that? ”
How often have you heard someone say or how often even have you yourself said to your child something like, “You make me so mad!” Imagine that someone allows his or her two-year-old child to grow up thinking she had the power to “make” them angry by regularly saying that to the child. As a teenager, then, that child would have been taught that she could continually do the things that make you angry and use them as a means to control you.
Or, what happens when I look at a co-worker, a friend, or my spouse and say, “You caused me to be angry”? Doesn’t that sound silly? It’s like saying, “You have complete control over my life.” It’s like saying, “I am allowing you to completely control me.” It just doesn’t make logical sense.
However, this line of thinking seems right to us when we allow our anger to spill over and rule us. When we allow that to happen, the epinephrine in our brain kicks in, which causes the rational part of our brain to shrink to about the size of pea and our irrational thinking to balloon and take over. When epinephrine kicks in, it decreases the rational part of our brain in the situation, and our rational brain shrinks to a pea-sized brain.
A New Approach to Difficult Situations
So, you ask, “How do I keep the epinephrine from taking over and causing me to be irrational?” Here’s a simple process that everyone can use. First, think about what “pushes your buttons”? What situations cause your epinephrine to release? Is it when your children don’t do what you ask them to do? Is it when your employees underperform? Is it when your computer doesn’t work well? Is it when someone cuts you off on the highway?
Then think about what specific thoughts come to mind that trigger the epinephrine to release in these sorts of situations. You probably think such thoughts as those children are not respecting me as a parent and are trying to go behind my back! Or, those new hires just aren’t trying hard enough and are cheating me out of their time! Or, computers are ruling my life and stopping me from doing what I need to do! Or, how dare that guy cut me off and be so disrespectful!
Once you have identified what your thoughts are in those situations, now, think about what new thoughts you are going to think that will help to prevent that epinephrine from releasing in response to those situations?
It’s important here that you don’t wait for these situations to occur before you decide what your new thoughts are going to be. Stop right now and think of something that makes you angry. Then, write down the thoughts you have in that situation that trigger the fear, frustration, or pain that causes the epinephrine to kick in. Now write down what a new thought can be or what the new thought is going to be the next time that happens and start practicing that thought now so this will be the thought that takes place the next time that event happens. You will surprise yourself and those around you when you don’t get angry the next time.
Start now to practice the new thought(s). Like building up a muscle, you’ll be ready when the situation occurs. If you wait until it happens to come up with the new thought, it will be too late because the epinephrine will already have been released. The rational part of your brain will have been inhibited, and you won’t be able to think clearly.
Preparing yourself with an arsenal of new thoughts when difficult situations occur will not only greatly improve your relationships, but they will also make you the smartest person in the room, give you a powerful tool to use in other situations that would otherwise trigger your anger, and cause the productivity in your organization to increase. And, remember, an organization is when two or more people are in relationship. As transformational leaders who regularly face difficult situations, we need to take this approach to be more effective leaders. By doing so, we can literally shift the culture of any organization through improved relationships and productivity.
Ford Taylor is a leadership strategist, keynote speaker, and the author of Relactional Leadership. As the Founder of Transformational Leadership, he is known as a man who can solve complex business issues, with straightforward practical solutions, while maintaining his focus on people.