How do you deal with people when they are having a meltdown?
Last week, one of the members of my team named Jimmy lost it. We were in the implementation phase of a system upgrade and he was working over the weekend. I was talking to him on the phone and he went off and started screaming. Jimmy's tirade was not so much directed at me as it was at others. But it was me he was screaming at in that moment and it didn't feel good.
Angry tirades are one of the worst kinds of emotional breakdowns. Here are some other emotional breakdowns, sorted by level of toxicity:
- Blaming and Criticizing
- Withdrawal and Isolation
- Door Slamming
- Holding Grudges and Getting Even
- Uncontrolled Crying
- Email Letter Bomb
- Angry Tirade
Though I haven't seen it at work, I include hitting in the list because it would be about the worse thing you could do when angry.
Interestingly enough, besides his angry tirade, Jimmy also did a lot blaming and criticizing. My judgement was that he was scared; I think he was actually in a job that was over his head. Fear seems to go hand in hand with blaming and criticizing. Think about when children are afraid that they will get in trouble. They often begin blaming everyone else around them instead of taking responsibility.
So what did I do when Jimmy was yelling at me? Initially, I stayed very calm and simply tried to reason with him. I was aware of my own emotions and noticed that I started getting angry as well. I was not so much angry about the yelling as I was about his overall performance. Jimmy had not completed his tasks from the night before as we had planned and he had delayed other people on the project. So when he was screaming at me, I found myself wanting to pay him back for not doing what had been agreed.
At that point in the conversation, I had at least three choices; let him continue to vent until he burned himself out, scream back at him, or leave the conversation. My normal pattern would have been either continue to listen or to scream back. On this day, I did the third thing which was to leave the conversation. I told him I that I would not be yelled at and that I was hanging up. I put down the phone and then promptly sent him an email saying I would not be yelled at and we could discuss it later when he was calm. I think my note to him had a sobering effect.
Getting off the phone felt better to me. I don't want to take on other people's toxic anger or let it impact me. What I learned later was that Jimmy had gone off on a number of people before me. Not surprisingly, his anger eventually caused him to lose his job at this company.
What I learned from this situation:
- Emotional self-control is important. Jimmy was not able to control his anger or other emotions. He was viewed as explosive and eventually he lost his job.
- I am OK even if you aren't. The principal of emotional boundaries says that you are responsible for your emotions and others are responsible for theirs. I am separate from Jimmy; he cannot make me angry or put me in a bad mood. I don't need to get upset just because Jimmy is upset. I can say things like "that sounds tough", or, "you sound angry".
- We need to take care of ourselves and not be a dumping ground for others. If someone is yelling, we can remove ourselves from the conversation. We sometimes need to take care of ourselves and tell others that the behavior is not acceptable.
- Be aware of our own emotions. When we are in a conflictual situation, we need to orient to our own emotions. In this case, I noticed that because I was mad about Jimmy's late tasks, I was more likely to escalate the situation rather than be objective and calm things down.
I suspect that Jimmy is going to go on to another company and take those same behaviors with him. Without an intervention of some type, it is unlikely that he will change. I am OK with that. I need to focus on myself and the things that I can change. I cannot change others.
How do you handle yourself when people yell at you? I'd like to hear about your experience with these types of situations.