We’ve all had conversations that start to get heated. You know the kind—voices and tempers start rising and we may not exactly be acting like our best selves. It’s in that moment when we wish there was a pause button in life and more importantly, a rewind button to erase that toddler-style temper tantrum we just had with our co-worker or spouse. Well, while doing some research for my book, The Kindness Challenge, I realized something important: when we are angry, most of us handle it wrong! And there are a few simple things we can do to help handle it right.
Here are 4 key strategies to help us keep our cool (before we become a hothead!):
Tip #1: In Advance, Realize “Venting” Only Makes Things Worse!
Most of us have bought into the idea that letting a little steam out of the kettle now prevents it from exploding later, right? And taking a few minutes to vent to or about our spouse, child, or boss just feels quite satisfying when we have steam pouring out of our ears. As it turns out, though, doing this actually hurts instead of helps.
Neuroscientists such as Dr. Brad Bushman at Ohio State have discovered that actually expressing the anger we feel further activates an interconnected anger system in the brain and makes the kettle boil that much more. So while we can certainly express anger any time we want to, the question is whether we should if we want to keep our temper in check and preserve a relationship, a job, or our sanity.
Tip #2: Instead of “Letting Off Steam,” Remove Yourself From the Heat
If we’re boiling and don’t want to be, the researchers suggest the equivalent of putting the lid on tight and removing the pot from the heat. When we decide to be calm (see below), it is the equivalent of smothering the anger and denying it oxygen to burn. And when we remove or distract ourselves from whatever is making us furious, we find our anger cooling off until, in many cases, we’re simply not angry anymore.
So when your co-worker expresses frustration that the boss made everyone work late last night, instead of chiming in with the “Yeah, and guess what else?!” additional grievances, calmly say, “Yep, that was frustrating. So about these quarterly numbers . . .” And if the other person persists, excuse yourself, go back to your cube and force yourself to think something more healthy. Like what else you were working on. Or that dream Caribbean vacation.
(One hint for husbands or boyfriends, though: given what we discovered in our research about how women are wired, if you have to remove yourself from an emotional conflict, be sure to reassure your wife or girlfriend that you two are okay and you’ll be able to talk about it later. That gives her the reassurance of your love that she needs to give you space without simmering and venting herself.)
Tip #3: Before You Speak, Pause
So how do we manage to respond “calmly” to our coworker (or spouse or in-laws or kids) when we’re just as mad as he or she is? Here’s the answer: force yourself to pause for a few seconds before you reply. Seriously. That allows your will to catch up with your boiling emotions, so you can decide to handle your words well (for example, if I reply to this now, it’s only going to make it worse. Best to ask if we can continue this conversation at 1:30pm.) More importantly, if you’re a person of faith, it also gives God a chance to touch your heart and steer your reply before you move forward—full steam ahead—and have regrets about your behavior later.
So when you’re worried about your son’s progress in school and seven shades of upset that your husband didn’t agree to hire a tutor to help him, force yourself to pause and get your thoughts together before you speak. “Think before you speak” is one of the earliest lessons we teach our kids and yet sometimes we forget it as adults. We need to relearn that skill—especially when it comes to those relationships that are most important to us.
Tip #4: Practice Apologies
Since we will not always do it right, despite all those strategies, we also need to practice apologies each and every time they are needed. “I’m sorry, honey. I know you care about David and I shouldn’t have ever implied that you didn’t. Will you forgive me?” You don’t need to necessarily agree (“Maybe this weekend we could talk more specifically about why I think a tutor is so important and how we can get the money to pay for it.”) But you DO need to apologize.
This is in part because our research with the happiest relationships found that we need to keep short accounts, be willing to make up and always ask for forgiveness when we have wronged someone else—regardless of whether they have wronged us too. But also because if we know we’re going to have to apologize if we let our temper run away with us, we’ll be far less likely to do it next time!
Tell yourself venting will make it worse. Remove yourself from the frustrating situation or focus on something else. Pause to let your ability to make a good choice catch up with you. And apologize if you don’t. Try these simple actions to keep your cool for just a few weeks and you’ll find yourself handling difficult feelings well. In fact, those pause and rewind buttons you wished for will be a thing of the past.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her newest book, The Kindness Challenge demonstrates that kindness is the answer to pretty much every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.