Helping the coachee or mentee work with anger
While anger is usually seen as an unhelpful emotion, it doesn’t have to be so. Managed anger can be a force for good, and has been a significant factor in every peaceful social change, from the abolition of slavery to equal opportunities at work and in society. While someone, who seems to be angry about everything, requires specialist help from a counsellor or psychotherapist, coaches and mentors can provide valuable support to someone, whose anger concerns a specific issue or situation.
Unmanaged anger tends to be dysfunctional, because it alienates others and reduces their willingness to support or collaborate or even listen to us, even if they are only spectators. Unmanaged anger tends to push us towards extremes – for example, “You are either with us or against us”. And it tends to make us less respected. It also makes us less able to listen to others, or to consider other perspectives.
Managed anger achieves exactly the opposite. When a black woman recorded and streamed her conversation with the white policeman, who had just shot her innocent partner, the driver of their car, it was her presence of mind and manifest control of her anger that gave her credibility and a tsunami of support across America.
So how can we help someone work with their anger to achieve positive outcomes? A practical approach involves four stages:
- Recognise and accept the anger
- Clarify the cause
- Clarify the purpose
- Make choices (about how to feel and how to behave) that are more likely to achieve positive outcomes
Recognise and accept the anger
Much of the intensity of anger comes from or perception that are feelings, needs and views are not being taken seriously. Simply acknowledging the anger can start the process of helping them feel sufficiently supported to confront their emotions. Use language such as “I can feel just how angry you are” to establish common feeling. Then you can begin to shift their focus from simply feeling to thinking about feeling. Here is one useful approach:
- What do you think the outcome is likely to be, if you let your anger drive you, instead of you taking control of it?
- How could we use this anger positively?
- Let’s explore what’s going on here and how you might gain greater control…
Clarify the cause
Anger can arise from a wide variety of sources. Among the most common are:
- Needing to assign blame for a loss or failure
- Feeling that something is unfair or “wrong”
- Feeling threatened, either directly or indirectly (for example, if you feel something important to you is under threat)
- Loss of autonomy, feeling disempowered or manipulated
It can be tempting, as the story unfolds, to challenge the assumptions the coachee/ mentee is making. However, this may simply increase their sense of frustration and anger. It’s better to help them capture the sequence of events, so that they can start to challenge themselves. The sequence will normally be:
- Stimulus (what happened to them, what someone else said or did)
- Instinctive unconscious reaction (what fear or other reaction occurred)
- Conscious reaction (feeling angry)
- Resulting behaviour
- Outcomes (e.g. not being able to shake off the anger)
It helps to preface this process with a statement like: “Try not to be judgemental towards anyone — for example, by making assumptions about their motives. Most of all, try not to be judgemental about yourself.” This tends to promote a more balanced and open exploration.
Clarify the purpose
The key questions here are:
- What does being angry do for you or get you?
- What could it do for you, if you managed it constructively?
These two questions either help people understand that being angry is not going to help them achieve the outcomes they want; or it connects their anger to a broader change agenda, beyond the here and now i.e. to a higher purpose.
Depending on the purposes identified, the coachee/ mentee now has an opportunity to choose whether to replace their anger with a more positive emotion, such as forgiveness; or to manage it as a source of motivation to bring about change. If they wish to change their emotion, then you can help them identify and overcome the limiting beliefs and assumptions that cause them to feel hurt, isolated, resentful and so on. If they wish to work with and channel their anger, you can help them plan how they can engage with others to drive a wider agenda of change together.
This four-stage process provides a structure for reflection and learning beyond the immediate emotional logjam. Experience shows that coachees/mentees can quickly absorb this way of thinking into their general behavioural repertoire, so that they recognise and value their anger as an indicator of potential to bring about positive change, either in their environment, or in themselves.