Anger can be normal and healthy emotion that helps us instinctively detect and respond to a threatening situation. More than this, when it is properly channeled, it can be a powerful motivating force – we all know how hard we can work to remedy an obvious injustice.
However it can also be an emotion that gets out of control, leading to stress, distress, unhealthiness and unhappiness. Uncontrolled anger can seriously harm your personal and professional life, because it can become incredibly destructive – to yourself and the people around you.
And in a modern workplace that often demands trust and collaboration, it can cause great damage to working relationships.
This article teaches an effective 12-step approach that helps you direct your anger constructively rather than destructively. The 12-step approach is based on the ideas of Duke University's Redford Williams, MD, who with his wife, authored the best-selling book Anger Kills. (In this book, Williams discusses 17 steps for controlling anger – these are often abridged to the 12 steps described here.)
Anger is a well-developed coping mechanism that we turn to when our goals are frustrated, or when we feel threat to ourselves or to people, things and ideas we care about. It helps us react quickly and decisively in situations where there is no time for a careful, reasoned analysis of the situation. And it can motivate us to solve problems, achieve our goals, and remove threats.
Acting in anger can serve, therefore, to protect yourself or others. A positive response and constructive outcome can improve your self-esteem and self-confidence.
On the other hand, a negative response can damage relationships and lead to a loss of respect and self-respect. This is particularly the case when we react instantly and angrily to what we perceive to be a threat, but where that perception is wrong. This can leave us looking very foolish.
So we need to learn to use anger positively, and manage it so that it is constructive and not destructive. Where situations are not immediately life-threatening, we need to calm down and evaluate the accuracy of our perceptions before, if necessary, channeling anger in a powerful but controlled way.
Anger management, then, is the process of learning how to "calm down" and diffuse the negative emotion of anger before it gets to a destructive level.
People experience anger in many different ways and for many different reasons. What makes you angry may only mildly irritate one of your colleagues, and have little to no effect on another. This subjectivity can make anger difficult to understand and deal with; it also highlights that the response is down to you. So anger management focuses on managing your response (rather than specific external factors). By learning to manage your anger, you can develop techniques to deal with and expel the negative response and emotions before it causes you serious stress, anxiety and discomfort.
Despite our differences in the level of anger we feel toward something, there are some universal causes of anger that include:
We commonly experience these potential anger triggers in our daily lives. An appropriate level of anger that is expressed correctly helps us take the right action, solve the problem that is presenting itself, or deal with the situation in a positive manner. If we can learn to manage our anger, we will learn to express it appropriately and act constructively.
So when you're angry, use Redford Williams' 12 steps to calm down:
Step 1: Maintain a "Hostility Log"
Download our free Hostility Log worksheet and use it to monitor what triggers your anger and the frequency of your anger responses. When you know what makes you angry, you will be in a much better position to develop strategies to contain it or channel it effectively.
Step 2: If You Do, Acknowledge That You Have a Problem Managing Anger
It is an observed truth that you cannot change what you don't acknowledge. So it is important to identify and accept that anger is a roadblock to your success.
Step 3: Use Your Support Network
If anger is a problem, let the important people in your life know about the changes you are trying to make. They can be a source of motivation and their support will help you when you lapse into old behavior patterns.
Step 4: Use Anger Management Techniques to Interrupt the Anger Cycle
Step 5: Use Empathy
If another person is the source of your anger, try to see the situation from his or her perspective. Remind yourself to be objective and realize that everyone makes mistakes and it is through mistakes that people learn how to improve.
Step 6: Laugh at Yourself
Humor is often the best medicine. Learn to laugh at yourself and not take everything so seriously.
The next time you feel tempted to kick the photocopier, think about how silly you would look and see the humor in your inappropriate expressions of anger.
Step 7: Relax
Angry people are often the ones who let the little things bother them. If you learn to calm down you will realize that there is no need to get uptight and you will have fewer angry episodes.
Step 8: Build Trust
Angry people can be cynical people. They believe that others are going to do something on purpose to annoy or frustrate them even before it happens. If you can build trust in people you will be less likely to become angry with them when something does go wrong and more likely to attribute the problem to something other than a malicious intent.
Step 9: Listen
Miscommunication contributes to frustrating and mistrusting situations. The better you listen to what a person is saying, the better able you will be to find a resolution that does not involve an anger response.
Step 10: Be Assertive
Remember, the word is assertive NOT aggressive. When you are angry it is often difficult to express yourself properly. You are too caught up in the negative emotion and your physiological symptoms (beating heart, red face) to put together solid arguments or appropriate responses. If you learn to assert yourself and let other people know your expectations, boundaries, issues, and so on, you will have much more interpersonal success.
Step 11: Live Each Day as if it is Your Last
This saying may be overused, but it holds a fundamental truth. Life is short and it is much better spent positively than negatively. Realize that if you spend all your time getting angry, you will miss out on the many joys and surprises that life has to offer.
Step 12: Forgive
To ensure that the changes you are making go much deeper than the surface, you need to forgive the people in your life that have angered you. It is not easy letting go of past hurts and resentments but the only way to move past your anger is to let go of these feelings and start fresh. (Depending on what, or who, is at the root of your anger, you may have to solicit the help of a professional to achieve this fully.)
These 12 steps form a comprehensive plan to get control of inappropriate and unproductive anger. And the quicker you begin the better. Anger and stress are highly correlated and the effects of stress on the body are well documented. Visit the MindTools stress management section to learn even more about the effects of stress and how to deal with it. You will find that many of the techniques presented here are used in stress management as well because both are negative, emotional-based influences in our lives, and the approach for dealing with them is therefore quite similar.
Even if you are not at the point where you feel your anger is a problem, it is a wise idea to familiarize yourself with the processes listed. If you do not have the tools to deal with anger correctly, it has a way of building-up over time. Before you know it, you can be in a position where anger is controlling you and becoming a negative influence in your life. Being proactive with anger management will help to ensure it remains a healthy emotion that protects you from unnecessary hurt or threat.
To assess how well you manage your anger at the moment, take our How Good Is Your Anger Management? self-test.
Anger is a powerful force, both for good and bad. Used irresponsibly, it can jeopardize your relationships, your work and your health.
Redford Williams' 12-step approach for dealing with unconstructive anger is a well-balanced system that emphasizes knowing yourself and your triggers and then using that awareness to replace negative angry behavior with more positive actions and thoughts. While you don't want to quell your anger completely, you do need to manage it if you're to use it creatively.
Anger is just one of a complex of emotions and situations wrapped up with stress. Burnout, the feeling of deep disillusionment that can end a promising career, is another of these. To learn more about managing stress, look at the Stress Management Masterclass, Mind Tools' self-study stress management system.
The Mind Tools Club gives you much, much more than you get here on the basic Mind Tools site, including these 4 free workbooks.
And if you join before midnight on June 27, we'll also give you our Motivate Your Team workbook.
Join the Mind Tools Club before midnight, June 27th, and get our Motivate Your Team workbook (worth US$19.99) for FREE.
Learn on the move with the free Mind Tools iPhone, iPad and Android Apps. Short bursts of business training ideal for busy people.