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How to handle an angry boss

New research from a team of Stanford researchers shows that the state of mind in which a person listens to an angry outburst has a big effect on whether or not they actually get upset. It gives some clues to help anyone lessen the impact of being yelled at, either by an angry boss or an angry spouse.

A common technique often recommended by cognitive-behavioral therapists tries to give people a different framework through which to view an angry person. So if someone is yelling at you, you might tell yourself that they've just received some bad news about their job or about a family member, and are now taking it out on you. The Stanford research seems to show that this technique also works if applied pre-emptively - before the angry outburst has even begun.

Jens Blechert, who led the research, refers to this process of rationalizing someone else's outburst as reappraisal. This is how he suggests the brain handles such information:

You can see this as a kind of race between the emotional information and the reappraisal information in the brain. Emotional processing proceeds from the front to the back of the brain, and the reappraisal is generated in the front of the brain and proceeds toward the back, where it modifies emotional processing.

Using brainscans to measure the effect of anger

Blechert and his colleagues did two experiments to see how people react to anger, and if they could modify those reactions in a useful way. In the first experiment, subjects were shown photos of angry people. But only one group was told, ahead of time, to consider that the angry person might just have had a really bad day and was acting out inappropriately. Once the subjects had adjusted their attitude toward the angry person, they weren't upset by the same photo the next time it appeared. The other group of subjects was repeatedly alarmed by the pictures of the angry people.

The researchers then conducted a similar experiment, but tracked electrical brain activity while the subjects were being shown pictures of angry people. The researchers found that "reappraising" - in effect, making excuses for the angry person - was able to wipe out the signals of negative emotion they first felt when looking at the angry faces. Says Blechert:

If you're trained [in] reappraisal, and you know your boss is frequently in a bad mood, you can prepare yourself to go into a meeting. He can scream and yell and shout, but there will be nothing.

It'd be nice to think Blechert, who also works as a therapist, is right. This could be a very simple way to cut down on a lot of work stress, in my opinion. But this study only worked with photos of angry people. None of the subjects actually had to endure an angry person screaming at them in person. Blechert plans to use a video of any angry person yelling at the subjects next. Any volunteers?

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

Do you have any great tricks for defusing an angry boss? Or is it all about taking cover and living to fight another day?

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