Dealing with Anger in the Team by Separating the People from the Problem

Anger is not just personal. It can be relational as well. When managing anger that involves the team, it helps to have a problem-oriented disposition, setting personal matters aside. This way the issue becomes an objective and workable issue.

In this blog post, we will discuss ways to separate people from the problem. Specifically, we will discuss the difference between objective and subjective language, ways to identify the problem, and how to use I-messages.

Objective vs. Subjective Language

One way to make sure that a discussion remains constructive is to use objective rather than subjective language.

Objective language involves stating your position using reference points that are observable, factual, and free from personal prejudices. Objective references do not change from person to person.

This is the opposite of subjective language, which is vague, biased, and or emotional. You are using subjective language when you are stating an opinion, assumption, belief, judgment, or rumor.

The use of objective language keeps the discussion on neutral ground. It’s less threatening to a person’s self-esteem and therefore keeps people from being on the defensive. More importantly, objective language can be disputed and confirmed, which ensures that the discussion can go towards a solution.

Related: Communication Outcome Based Team Building Activities

Here are some guidelines in the use of objective vs. subjective language:

Subjective: You’re an inconsiderate supervisor. 

Objective: You approved the rule without consulting with us first.

  • Avoid vague references to frequency. Instead, use the actual numbers.

Subjective: You are always late!

Objective: You were late for meetings four times in the past month.

  • Clarify terms that can mean differently to different people.

Subjective: You practice favoritism when you give promotions.

Objective: The employee ranking system is not being followed during promotions.

  • Don’t presume another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

Subjective: You hate me!

Objective: You do not talk to me when we are in a room together.

  • Don’t presume an action you did not see or hear.

Subjective: She stole my wallet. 

Objective: The wallet was on my desk when I left. It was no longer there when I came back, and she was the only person who entered the room.

Identifying the Problem

You can’t separate people from the problem if you don’t know what the problem is. A good way to move forward, in a discussion where anger is escalating, is through identifying the problem.  

Related: Problem Solving Outcome Based Team Building Activities

Identifying the problem focuses all energy on the crisis at hand rather than the persons involved in a conflict. The two parties focus their energies on a common enemy that is outside of themselves, a move that puts the two opposing parties back in neutral ground.

There are many processes you can use to identify the problem. Here is one of them:

STEP ONE:  Get as much information as you can why the other party is upset.

STEP TWO: Surface the other person’s position. Reframe this position into a problem statement. Example: “I can hear how upset you are. Am I right in perceiving that the problem for you is that you weren’t informed of the account being sold?”

STEP THREE: Review your own position. State your position in a problem statement as well. Example: “The problem for me is that I don’t have the resources to contact you. The phone lines are not working because of the storm.”

STEP FOUR: Having heard both positions, define the problem in a mutually acceptable way. Example: “I hear that you’d like to be informed of any sales. On my part, I’d like to inform you, but for as long as the phone lines are dead, I can’t see how I would do it. I think the issue here is about finding an alternative way to get the information to you on time while the phones are being repaired. Do you agree?”

If the two parties agree to the problem statement, they can now both work at the surfaced problem and take the focus away from their emotions.

Using “I” Messages

An “I-message” is a message that is focused on the speaker. When you use I-messages, you take responsibility for your own feelings instead of accusing the other person of making you feel a certain way. The opposite of an I-message is a You-message.

An “I-message” is composed of the following:

  • A description of the problem or issue.

Describe the person’s behavior you are reacting to in an objective, non-blameful, and non-judgmental manner.  

“When … “

  • Its effect on you or the organization.

Describe the concrete or tangible effects of that behavior. 

“The effects are … “

  • A suggestion for alternative behavior.

“I’d prefer … “

Here is an example of an I-message:

 “When I have to wait outside the office an extra hour because you didn’t inform me that you’d be late (problem/issue), I become agitated (effect). I prefer for you to send me a message if you will not be able to make it (alternative behavior).”

The most important feature of I-messages is that they are neutral. There is no effort to threaten, argue, or blame in these statements. You avoid making the other person defensive, as the essence of an I-message is “I have a problem” instead of “You have a problem”. The speaker simply makes statements and takes full responsibility for his/her feelings.

 

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