Rising Above: 4 Strategies to Conquer Anger

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  • August 22, 2016

Over the past few years, I have flown a lot. This has given me a lot of time to observe how people respond to flying, and I’ve been able to identify three common, and extreme, reactions in people.

Some people are really frightened by it, despite how safe flying is.

Some people marvel at the capacity of human innovation. I try to fall into this category, taking the time to view the incredible perspective from 5,000 or 35,000 feet. Whether it is flying over the Grand Canyon or flying up the Hudson River to see the New York City skyline, it is an incredible feeling that is tough to put into words.

Finally, some people get angry. Flying is generally an unpredictable and awful customer service experience, from getting to the airport to waiting at the gate to getting in late to your destination, all of which brings out a lot of anger and frustration in people. I fly approximately 140 times per year, so I get to see all kinds of behaviors and most are not positive. Just this past week, our plane had just reached 10,000 feet and we heard the beautiful ding that means we can stop staring into space and get out our laptops and tablets and get on the internet. When that ding went off, my neighbor on the plane took out his laptop and logged in to GoGo Inflight (the internet service of the sky) as quickly as you could say 1-2-3. The only problem was that GoGo wasn’t working, instead showing a page that said “Oops! Sorry the internet is down.” Well, my neighbor almost had a heart attack. He was angry. He was talking, and I have no idea to whom. He was breathing really loudly.

Since my own internet wasn’t working, this was pretty entertaining to me (for the three minutes it took until GoGo was back up). My neighbor’s behavior got me thinking about anger. Why is there so much anger in this world? While not a perfect analogy, I liken anger to junk food. It’s cheap, easily accessible but not nutritious. While both anger and junk food can give us some kind of perceived short-term satisfaction, in the end, there is not much benefit in the long term (sorry, all you long-time Twinkie, pizza, ice cream, Skittles and Wonder bread lovers!). At some point, though, anger made a lot of sense for humans.

The Reality of Anger

So, where does the ubiquity of anger leave us? With a society of angry travelers who get set off at the slightest adversity? No. It leaves us with a few realities.

First, anger is in all of us. I marvel at those, many of whom I work with, who seem so calm and collected in many harrowing situations. While these people are incredibly impressive, anger is a natural emotion that most of us will experience on occasion. The good news is that anger can give us so much insight into ourselves.

The best news is that anger can be managed. I’m reminded of a quote from the movie Anger Management; Jack Nicholson’s character, Dr. Buddy Rydell, says “Temper’s the one thing you can’t get rid of, by losing it.” It takes strategy. And like any other muscle or habit you want to enforce, controlling anger takes a lot of work and discipline.

Managing Anger

Recently, The Charged Life podcast addressed how to deal with anger. Brendon Burchard, host of the podcast, introduced an alliterative strategy of the 4 Ws: Wait, Wonder, Will your highest self and Well-being prioritization. While I incorporate some other strategies from sleep to napping to meditation that work for me, here is a quick explanation of these four.

  1. Wait. I like to call this the “5-second rule” or the “sleep on it rule,” but in the moment, it takes a lot of willpower to just walk away and not send that email or exercise a finger when someone is cutting you off. But when you do wait, it’s incredibly powerful. It is amazing what seems so important in one moment and not at all in the next moment. Listening to your gut is one thing, but allowing your emotions to dictate your behavior and responses seems childish to me. Brendon says to enlarge the gap between stimulus and response. I give myself a C on this one, but I know I can do better.
  2. Wonder. This is my favorite thing to do. This is where real introspection and thought can really help you. Ask yourself, “Where is this anger coming from? What am I really upset about here?” Brendon brings up a good example that really helped me yesterday. I was biking very early in the morning and some car almost bumped me off the road. As I felt myself getting angry, I wondered, “Is this really about me? Maybe the person didn’t see me as it was 6 in the morning and it turned out my flashing light was broken. Maybe the person was just a great driver and felt getting ONE inch from me was perfectly acceptable.” The reality is that things are going to happen if you decide not to live in a bubble. Two philosophies I study a lot, stoicism and Buddhism, talk a lot about stepping back and becoming the observer. This really helps to become dispassionate and objective toward the situation.
  3. Will your highest self. This was a new one for me, although sometimes I look internally to a mentor or an ideal person and think about how they would respond in the situation. In a sense, this is similar to “wonder” because you become an observer, but it goes even further. You try to see yourself as your ideal or higher self. Brendon mentions, astutely, that your best self would tell you to, “Handle this well, so you can respect yourself later, prove that you can, and have fewer regrets later.” It would say, “Instead of being angry, try to be compassionate because from compassion and love come a greater power to influence than you will ever have as an angry little child.”
  4. Well-being prioritization. This might be a little bit of stretch on the “W” alliteration, but let’s go with it. Brendon says to ask yourself, “What would my reply be in this case that would help me develop well-being of mind, of heart and how could I respond in this way that would help somebody else with their well-being? That would give them a little more perspective, a little bit more wisdom.” The author uses the example of Nelson Mandela. What if Mandela left his jail cell where he was unjustly confined and unleashed all that anger in a negative way? It’s likely he would not have earned the Nobel Peace Prize for having been the catalyst to end apartheid in South Africa. I have so much respect for individuals like this, who on the surface have so much justifiable reason to be angry but instead choose to do good. Jim Collins in the book Good to Great coined the Stockdale principle after Jim Stockdale, who was a POW for eight years in Vietnam. He lived by a simple principle, or a paradox as Collins calls it, that he knew he would get out one day and this would be a defining moment in his life that he would use for good. In a similar vein, the book Unbroken about Louis Zamperini discussed how he lived through incredible horrors during World War II, including being a POW in Japan. When he finally got out, he did not harbor resentment or bitterness. In fact, he even went back to Japan many years later and met some of his former captors and forgave them. Both Stockdale and Zamperini went on to have very fulfilling and successful lives by almost every measure.

Anger is an emotion that is universal. We have all experienced it in the past and will likely all experience it at some point in the future. Therefore, we must come up with strategies and tactics to deal with our anger when it arises, instead of suppressing or ignoring it. I increasingly find when I get a moment to become the “observer” that it almost never serves a positive purpose to wallow in my anger.

The recent Olympic Games showed many instances of the benefits of rising above anger. One of my favorites was during the semifinal heat of the women’s 4×100 meter relay, when there was a botched handoff of the baton between Allyson Felix and English Gardner. Felix was clipped by a runner in the next lane who was clearly over the line and thus Felix failed to pass the baton to Gardner. Felix’s first reaction was one of anger because it was clear the team’s chances of advancing to the final and winning the gold medal were over. However, she realized a moment later that if team USA wanted to file a protest, the team had to finish the race. So she picked up the baton and gave it to Gardner to finish the race. She could have just as easily stormed off the track and let her anger consume her. In the end, she kept her composure, and team USA was able to file a successful protest. Two nights later, the team won the gold medal, destroying the rest of the field.

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3 Comments on "Rising Above: 4 Strategies to Conquer Anger"

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Brian Engard
There are two things I try to keep in mind whenever I get angry. I’m not the originator of either of these things; they come from wiser people than I, but then that’s life. The first is that anger is, at its root, a fear response. All anger comes from fear: fear of failure, fear of not being able to provide, fear of not being able to do the thing you need to do right now. I find it’s often useful, when I’m feeling angry, to step back and ask myself, “What am I afraid of right now? Why am… Read more »
Todd Zipper

Brian, really helpful response. Its amazing how powerful fear is. I guess we manifest fear in many ways including getting scared, depressed, or clearly angry as you discuss. I also think trying to empathize with other and not take it “personally” is really powerful if you can practice it. I am certainly working on it!

Brian Engard

The important thing to always remember is that things like empathy, tolerance, justice, and patience are processes, not goals. You never get there; you just keep working to improve.

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