Why you might be angry right now (and how empathetic listening helps)

So let me start by promising that I won’t use the following words and phrases in this blog post. Unprecedented. Challenging. Uncertain. I find them just as annoying as you do right now.

As we enter our second year of a global pandemic, it’s pretty clear many around us are struggling with anger. You just have to look at the headlines to see it happening among politicians and leaders, in personal relationships, and out in public. It’s serious enough that officials like B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry go out of their way to remind us to “be kind, be calm, be safe.”

I’m also seeing more anger and frustration in online meetings, enough that I’m curious about whether COVID-19 is the cause. Of course, there are obvious reasons. Meetings just go better when people are face-to-face, never mind when the participants are struggling with increased stress, insufficient social contact and the challenges of working from home.  

I also found some many unique insights in The Role of Anger in Mediation, a paper by Toronto lawyer and mediator Irvin Schein. It’s not specifically about COVID-19, but he offers some timely and compassionate advice for mediators or anyone else who must navigate frustration, hurt and anger in these *blankety-blank* times. I’ll share what I learned from his paper, along with some of my pandemic-related observations thrown in for good measure.

So why are you angry? Schein says there are three potential types of anger — aggression, anxiety, and attribution. Aggression is typically a behaviour that’s learned from others, and aggressive people learn to use it as a tool for getting what they want. While aggression isn’t directly linked to the impacts of the pandemic (except for causing poor behaviour in the toilet paper aisle), anxiety and attribution are. 

Anxiety is a product of fear, and we often see it when there’s been a sudden and unexpected shift in a power relationship. People who are used to being in control become anxious, and sometimes angry, because they feel like they’ve lost their influence. People who want or need more control become anxious when they feel they can’t have it. Think about the power of the pandemic, and how it deprives us of our sense of control.  

Attribution is about how we choose to interpret the behaviour of those we might disagree with. Research suggests we’re more likely to react with anger when we believe someone’s actions are driven by their character or disposition than if we believe their actions are caused by their circumstances. That anger can cause us to make mistakes in perception and judgement; what Schein calls an attribution error. Think how COVID-19 has compromised our ability to communicate, and that can lead to all kinds of attribution errors. 

Should you express it? Schein also debates whether anger has a place in the meeting room. Expressing anger can reduce our ability to perceive nuance, consider complex matters and make sound judgements. It can also provoke anger in those we’re working with. But suppressing anger can lead to greater anxiety, which can lead to other complications.

Professionals are trained to use techniques like reframing to help people look at issues from a different perspective and shift everyone’s thinking to a more productive focus. But Schein emphasizes something that even non-professionals can use every day, and it’s going to be especially important as we begin to recover from the pandemic. 

That’s listening with empathy. We’re all carrying a range of emotional experiences right now. Some are connected to difficult, work-related topics, while others are personal experiences that lurk in our minds as we struggle to get our work done. By listening without judgement, we help others decode their emotions which can serve as obstacles to good, productive discussion.

Start your next tough meeting with an important question. Think about the time when you started a difficult meeting, and you’ve been greeted by silence. That’s what people do when they’re uncomfortable. They clam up. They turn their cameras off.

It might not sound like much, but start by asking simple questions like these:

  • How are you doing today?
  • Where are you coming from today?
  • What things are you thinking about today?

Make a point of asking everyone to respond. Ask follow-up questions that show you’re listening and that you care about what they’re saying. 

When it comes time for your answer, be honest. If you’re frustrated, worried or fearful, explain why in a clear and simple way. You might say:

  • I’m a little bit frustrated because I have back-to-back meetings today
  • I’m nervous about meeting today because I know there are concerns
  • I’m worried that we might be facing a difficult conversation

Then ask another question. “Does anyone feel the same way?”

Demonstrating a little vulnerability may seem risky, but it is an important act of empathy to help others with their frustrations, and for keeping anger from derailing your next challenging meeting.