How can I learn to not be so reactive?
April 14, 2013 2:08 PM   Subscribe

In a professional situation someone tried to bully a number of people, including me. I lost my temper, not badly, but I got angry and said silly things. (well true things said in a silly way, all now apologised for) The disappointing thing is, my outburst was counter productive and unnecessary. I was right, so right, and if I had stayed cool, and responded calmly I would have been able to completely control the situation.

The person doing the bullying apologised too and backed down.
But a few other people got hurt and upset in little side arguments that sparked off the main conflagration. It appears some working relationships were permanently damaged. That may not be my fault directly but, I could have prevented it.

I am now a large grown man, but was once an undersized and bullied child, and now it seems that in the heat of the moment, when someone treats me unfairly or vindictively, that some old part of me lashes out as if I am helpless and overwhelmed.

How can I learn to not be so reactive?
posted by compound eye to Human Relations (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It seems basic, but breathe, count down slowly, and go somewhere else to calm down. If you need to you can go to the bathroom or even just say "I am feeling upset by this and it seems like emotions are running high. I'm going to go get a drink of water and hopefully we can talk about this more calmly when we get back." Possibly a lot of people are feeling the same way you are and often your best option really is to be by yourself to slow your breathing and maybe splash your face with cold water just for a little bit.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:23 PM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: I don't know if it's entirely healthy to spend too much time here ;^) but I find that debating things at MeFi and at other similar haunts on the internet is pretty good for developing the reflexes to bite your tongue until you've got a fairly convincing message and an effective way to convey it worked out, since people here are quite good at leveling criticism where it's deserved. (And where it's undeserved too, but learning how to respond to that in a measured fashion in an environment where there are lots of intelligent people willing to entertain well-articulated reasoning may be equally helpful.)

If you really want to develop saintlike poise and practice calmly articulating reason in the face of malevolent insanity, try wading into fights at Wikipedia without getting stabby and tearing your hair out. That would be like the decathlon of discipline in approaching and dealing with bullies in situations you have no control over.

Sorry to hear that you had to deal with such an unpleasant incident.
posted by XMLicious at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: I was right, so right, and if I had stayed cool, and responded calmly I would have been able to completely control the situation.

This sort of thinking, while it can help you keep your cool sometimes, is unproductive in the long-term. There is exactly one thing you have the potential to completely control, and that is yourself and your reaction to stressful situations. Being cool and collected won't guarantee other people do what you want regardless of how right you are. But that doesn't mean the proper alternative is to get angry, because, as you just found out, even when you win, you lose.

So, how to be less reactive? Don't consider these sorts of situations as a proving ground where you come out either right or wrong. Instead, either work toward a peaceful compromise, or just walk away and let someone with a better idea save the day.
posted by griphus at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I find that meditation (nothing spiritual, no cults) can help. Breath counting is generally the place to start.

Also, this video was somewhat inspiring.
posted by poe at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: I'm the same way, and it can be really hard to make sure my voice stays steady and calm once I've reached my breaking point with someone who is antagonizing others.

It sounds like you are good at realizing when you are close to your point of no return. When you it coming on, I recommend taking your thumb and index finger of one hand and using it to pinch the thumb pad of the other hand. You can do it in such a way where it looks like you have your hands folded calmly in your lap. It helps me take measured breaths, and to stay focused and calm.

It is also better (in a workplace setting especially) to address things one-on-one with the bully. Just try to take deep breaths, be patient and wait for a time to address that person.

Also, what griphus said is true, too. You can only control yourself in those situations.
posted by nohaybanda at 3:27 PM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: You should see a therapist. My ex had anger issues from likely having been bullied as a grade schooler and the way his anger came out when he finally decided to get in touch with his feelings was scary and abusive. Nobody wants to be around people who can't manage their emotions appropriately. It's embarrassing and unacceptable. Go to a therapist and learn to handle yourself.
posted by discopolo at 3:46 PM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: Personally I do this:

"Okay, we can come back to [whatever off-topic stuff is being said] some other time. Right now, the key issue is [the most important work-related issue]."

(Now obviously it has to make sense. If someone has outright attacked a coworker, that is a full stop. But if it is a couple of snide remarks or someone dragging up a past failure, I have found it best to push through.)

My approach does not ignore the bullying -- we will come back to it if a mutually acceptable amends is not made -- but it does not let one person disrupt the entire team/office.

After that, learn to channel the energy into the work. Personally I imagine all eyes on me, and if I have just told everyone what the important issue is, then I need to set the example by taking that task up with energy/professionalism.
posted by 99percentfake at 4:48 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am now a large grown man, but was once an undersized and bullied child, and now it seems that in the heat of the moment, when someone treats me unfairly or vindictively, that some old part of me lashes out as if I am helpless and overwhelmed.

You are 3/4 of the way there. You know why you overreact, now you just have to work on changing your frame of reference for when people treat you unfairly. Not just in the moment, because it is very hard to think clearly when you are steamed up, but all the time. Is this person someone you don't respect, or hold in disdain somehow? If you have a negative view of this person, when things go funny, that negativity is going to come out.

Also, consider what the worst possible thing that could happen as a result of the unfariness or vindictiveness. Someone at work is a jerk. If you just let it slide and let them "get away" with it, what will happen? Probably nothing. Maybe someone sees you as being easily steamrolled, and they lose a little respect for you. But they will have the same reaction if you let this jerk's behavior affect your own behavior. Flying off the handle is just as much a vulnerability as doing nothing. So measure your response- don't respond in kind, rather, respond in the way you'd like to be seen.
posted by gjc at 6:19 PM on April 14, 2013

Response by poster: I think Gryphus's last line is very good:
Don't consider these sorts of situations as a proving ground where you come out either right or wrong. Instead, either work toward a peaceful compromise, or just walk away and let someone with a better idea save the day.

This distills the the essence of exactly the approach I try to follow, but perhaps have never had articulated in a simple phase that I can recall in those first moments when the shock of being verbally attacked washes over me.

Because although I am self aware enough to understand how to approach conflict reasonably well, and self disciplined enough to stay calm, once I have become consious of the need to do so, what I cannot yet do, is remember to keep my mouth shut in the first five seconds when I am suprised by an unexpected conflict or escalation. That's the key thing I feel I need to change, I am not violent, I don't go on furious rants, I just want to reign in a few seconds of reactionary acid tongue.

I do think therapy and meditation could be useful here, I think there is some relationship between reactivity and your concept of self. I think a calmer settled sense of self, neutralises the sense of threat you feel from attacks and percieved wrongs. I think in my case there is some element of my sense of self that was shaped long ago with a sense of vulnerability, that is still kicking around, years, decades after it is no longer appropriate. I think the adrenaline surge I felt last night, was in part triggered not just by what was happening at the time, but the resonance with previous events and humiliations. In my case those past events have lost most of their sting with years, so if I can get myself to slow down and reflect on a provocation, I can defuse my outrage.

What I feel I need to learn is how to trigger that little message to myself in volatile situations. All the advice here is very good and right on target, but I'd like to be better at remembering to do it.

I'm also wondering how I can put myself in situations where I practise this. I've been working on getting fit enough to go back to sparring. This might not be apparent someone who doesn't do it themselves, but boxing and martial arts don't have to glorify and promote violence (though of course they often do). I have found learning to stay cool while someone who has lost their temper and is trying to hit me a transformative experience.

So physical provocation isn't a big problem for me, and random abuse isn't a problem for me. I'm very open to receiving criticism, but nastiness triggers something in me, what it triggers is perhaps objectively mild, but all the same I am aware that the behaviour that comes out does not meet my own standards that I want for myself.

I want to be able to operate in environments that are rife with conflict, and I want my contribution to potentially nuclear situations to be more control rod than fuel rod

I would like to find situations, away from work, where I can practise dealing with verbal conflict. ( hmm I think I'm seeing the essence of my next question to the hive, more on that in seven days then :))

Thank you everyone for the time and energy you've put in helping me with this question.

discopolo I'm sorry to hear that you had to deal with that. My closest friend married a man with anger problems and it took a real toll on her, thankfully she now has a new and much happier relationship.
posted by compound eye at 7:07 PM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: I'm also wondering how I can put myself in situations where I practise this

As you mentioned: martial arts.

I have a hair-trigger temper when it comes to bullies, so I can relate very much to your question. Karate has helped me so much. Particularly, doing one-on-one training with a master teacher -- things like having him throw a strike at my face, stopping just inches away. This is helping rewire my flinch-fight response.

I wonder if something like improv class would be helpful? It might help you learn to be more supple in your reactions in on-the-spot situations. Acting is largely about emotional regulation.
posted by nacho fries at 8:51 PM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: Try this:

Before speaking, ask yourself:

Does it need to be said?
Does it need to be said by me?
Does it need to be said now?

By the time you've answered those, you should be close to your five seconds.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:43 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I used to have a horrible temper. Like you, I was bullied as a child. I am not sure if I can really offer constructive advice but I can tell you that I did have one experience wherein my tantrums caused me to lose a relationship very dear to me (well, there was way more at play there, these things are incredibly complex, but my temper was a large part of it).

From that point on, I have only even felt anger exactly three times in the last three years and have never expressed it outwardly. When it comes, I can "catch it" by sort of dissociating a bit, by getting outside of myself and taking a third party view of the situation. Hard to explain, but I guess just allowing yourself to take a step back and breathe is in order. It can be done in a few seconds. ...Well, once it took a whole bike ride, ha. I try to remember that in a modern context anger has no real use and is only damaging to all parties involved as you have experienced and as you KNOW somewhere within you. I always try to think of the other person in terms of them being a human being who is just as fallible as I am and not deserving of receiving any pain if that can be avoided. When you understand someone and can see where they are coming from, it is hard to be angry with them. So instead of feeling angry at them, I feel bad for them and want to help them and myself get back to a place where everything is good. Now instead of ever lashing out, I just speak calmly and express why their actions might not have been ideal in a level tone of voice. This has led to me having a much better life in general and to the people around me being a lot more happy and productive as well.

Actually, I have gone so far with this that sometimes my friends tell me I SHOULD be angry and I often just feel puzzled. There was recently a case where a guy I was dating betrayed me in a pretty nasty way. I didn't feel anger toward him at all as I can see how from his past and present circumstances the behavior he displayed could be anticipated, sadly. Before talking to him about the incident, I told the story to my close friends to get their opinions, two of whom ended up yelling at -me- saying that THEY were angry on my behalf! Haha. I calmed them down by asking them repeatedly what good anger would really do in this situation and they had no real answers to that question. I then spoke to the guy I had been seeing, and told him that his actions were hurtful and unacceptable and that our romantic relationship was over (just because I don't get mad doesn't mean I'm a pushover) but with no anger involved. I think that due to this he learned something and grew and I did too. I think if I had yelled at him, he would have gotten hurt and defensive and perhaps tried to build a case about how he was right. Instead he acknowledged his mistake and agreed that it was probably due to his past in some regards and resolved to work on those issues and on being better in the future. Although we are not together now, we are still friendly.

I guess I feel a bit awkward giving this as advice as I basically had this as an epiphany and now barely ever even feel the emotion at all. I can see how it might not be so simple for everyone! I had a huge trauma that slapped me upside the head and in doing so slapped all the anger out so it might not be transferable to people who have not had that experience. But maybe you can take this minor slip up as your epiphany! You already intellectually see what I have felt. Just try to FEEL it in your bones. Gah, now I sound like a hippy but I just can't think of how to better articulate it. Anger has no use. Anger is only harmful. Maybe you can just think your way out of it like I did but don't get angry at yourself (or me) if you can't! I think having compassion for yourself and others is key. We are all human, we all err, but there are always reasons why we take the actions we do and there are always peaceful ways to resolve disagreements. Best of luck with this, anger is a very destructive bitch. :)
posted by telomere at 4:36 AM on April 15, 2013

Response by poster: An after note,

I've been contacted by other people present who have told me all the little arguments that flared have been resolved and rifts healed, and that a number of people had calmly tried to point out to the bully that he was behaving inappropriately but he had steamrollered over them.

According to the 30 odd people present, everything I said was appropriate, and that my anger was the only thing that stopped him in his tracks. Not sure where this leaves me, but I'm sort of with telomere and gryphus, regardless of the outcome, I know I wasn't in control.
Even if f anger was the appropriate thing to communicate, next time I hope to do it with words I consciously chose, and not just what comes out my vent hole.

unfortunately nacho, I was actually acting on a film set at the time this all happened.

thank you everyone for your advice,

damn it I love this site.
posted by compound eye at 5:49 PM on April 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

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