Some men just want to watch the world burn.
That’s how Michael Caine (Alfred) put it when mentoring Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman) in The Dark Knight. For one reason or another, people can be aggressive or over the top simply because they are in a place of power.
Ask ten people and nine of them would probably say the same of their own boss; without warning, they’ll go berserk over the smallest issues.
The disconnect occurs because the employee and the boss often have different perspectives of the same situation.
The employee who is in the trenches 24/7 knows exactly how things are proceeding, what problems need to be tackled, what roadblocks require a work around, and what things are not feasible with given time or resources – whereas the boss only sees a project falling behind schedule. Naturally, the boss calls you into their office to shout at you until your ears fall off and you are left cowering in the corner. Do they understand what’s really going on – or do they just want to unleash their anger on you and watch the world burn?
Yes, your boss is stressed. Yes, there’s always a chance that the only outlet they have is to be aggressive and angry. Yes, their career is on the line, as well as the company’s well-being. That doesn’t make their aggression warranted.
So when you are faced with an aggressive boss, you need to find ways to placate them.
Use these 4 Steps to Defuse an Aggressive Boss
Slow Things Down
Your boss just unleashed a 5-minute verbal tirade. He or she has reached their boiling point and is seeing red. How do you respond?
Don’t fight fire with fire. Slow things down and keep your composure. Use the pace of your own voice to ease the tension and find a polite way to ask them to repeat key parts of the conversation — but slow things down so you can understand all of their concerns. Dr. Albert J. Bernstein, Clinical Psychologist, suggests that when faced with a difficult conversation, slowing down the conversation breaks the pattern, “They’re expecting you to resist them but you’re not. You’re asking them to clarify. You’re interested. This makes them shift more out of “dinosaur brain” and into thinking. And that’s good.”
Listen, Acknowledge, Ask, Keep Listening
One of the best ways to defuse an aggressive person is simply to listen to them (not just ‘hear‘ – really listen).
Your natural reaction when on the receiving end of aggression is to become defensive, stop listening, and wait for your moment to strike back with: “But you don’t understand!” Instead, actively listen to why they are upset or aggressive, and rather than countering with a ‘but’, acknowledge what they say. The goal is not to resist, but to empathize. Repeat statements back verbatim – “you said you were upset that the project was delayed 3 days, I too am far from satisfied with this outcome.”
Let them know you want to do everything to make things right and ask as many questions as possible so you can understand all the underlying issues. Executive Coach Joshua Spodek posits that to understand one’s motivations, you need to ask questions – then keep asking – then ask some more. By following up, you can reach the heart of the matter and take things from there.
Remember You Have the Same Goals
In how to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie reminds us that when faced with a difficult conversation, “Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.”
You are on the same team, right? Empathize with your boss’ frustration and remind them that you have the same goals.
Create Next Steps and Check-Ins
If you come out of the conversation with nothing but exchanged insults, bruised egos, and even more pent up rage – you might as well quit! Work together and create next steps and pre-determined check-ins so that your boss can be more active and engaged. They will feel more in control of the situation and that will help put them at ease.
Carnegie also recommends that you make suggestions, not statements or demands. Let the other person believe they have made the decision and they will feel like they are coming out on top, when really you both do!