Calming the rage beast at work
August 27, 2014 12:16 PM   Subscribe

Work stress has led me to being increasingly short with people. How can I stop this?

Lately due to work-related stress I have been very short, snappy, and sometimes downright mean with people at work both in person and through email. This is unprofessional and likely not very good for relations. What strategies can I use to:

1) Stop and change this behaviour in the moment? I don't have the time to re-phrase emails to be more tactful, so I would like to be tactful from the get-go. This is even more difficult for me to achieve when speaking.

2) Reduce stress while at work? I am getting shaky hands and nausea when at work due to stress and need specific things I can do while at the office. Outside of the office I already eat healthily, exercise regularly, socialize, engage in hobbies, etc. I also take half-hour walks daily at lunchtime.

Yes, I do hope to get a new job soon and quit. I need stop-gap measures to survive for now.

Thank you.
posted by rebooter to Work & Money (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I have a Spotify playlist with calming music. When I'm in a certain kind of mood, I'll put headphones in and queue up that playlist.
posted by too bad you're not me at 12:29 PM on August 27, 2014

How much control do you have over your work environment? I was in a similar situation, and was able to make some changes to my (personal, not-shared) office that made me feel calmer in my own space. I brought in a nice lamp with a soft glow instead of using the glaring overheads, played calming music, and brought in various soft things that I could play with. A coworker also changed her lighting, and brought in a bunch of plants.

I would also sometimes close my door and spend ten minutes pretending to punch things, or crying under my desk, or doing jumping jacks--whatever felt like it might help let off a little emotional buildup. If you can't shut yourself off like that, is there a single-stall bathroom, or a little-used conference room you can retreat to?
posted by MeghanC at 12:34 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Often when I'm feeling that way, it's partially because I feel overwhelmed by the amount of disruption I'm getting - the lack of control over when I'm going to be "pestered" makes things worse than they need to be. With that in mind, can you try to carve out blocks of uninterrupted time for yourself by - say - deciding that in busy periods you'll shut your email app down and only check it 3x/day (morning, noon, and afternoon)? Not quite sure how to manage the in-person folks, but depending on your job and your relationship with your coworkers, perhaps you can designate certain times for questions/requests. Having those planned times for dealing with other people, rather than feeling like I never get anything done because I'm constantly reacting to other everyone's IMs, emails, etc. makes me feel a whole lot calmer.
posted by DingoMutt at 12:38 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

The way a support person for software that I used really impressed me when we were going back and forth via email was that in every single email response, she started it with "Hi jillithd". I know when I am in a rush, I skip the greeting and go right to the terse data. So that is a suggestion for you - remember to start (and end) your emails softly and politely with a "Hi [person]". That is one way to soften up what can be read as a too-terse email.

When you are saying that you don't have the time to re-phrase an email to be more tactful, is this because you are answering someone's question? Is it a topic only you know about or is there documentation elsewhere? Sometimes I get really frustrated if people don't take the initiative to look at our documentation and just ask me because I'm faster. If that is the case, try in the next few emails to answer their question but also say where you found the answer (links and documents are helpful) and suggest how to go about searching for it. Do that a few times and then maybe the next round reply that you are too busy to find it for them right now, but point them in the direction of where you *would* look. Talk to your boss about this tactic, too, to make sure that you aren't blowing off an important customer or internal contact. ;-)
posted by jillithd at 12:39 PM on August 27, 2014

Best answer: Sometimes with emails I like to imagine I'm saying them out loud, so that they sound more like speech and less terse. You did say that you feel like you have trouble being tactful out loud too, but I feel like in general the standards for sounding pleasant in writing are lower, and making writing sound more like speech gives it a friendly feeling. I agree with starting with a greeting, and also adding a "thank you" when appropriate goes a long way.

The other thing I'd say, and you may already know this, is: be careful not to reprimand people you don't supervise. "Thanks, but I actually need X Thing" is so much better than "Do not send me Y Thing."

Re: reducing stress, one half-hour walk at lunch may not be enough of a break. Unless you're in a service-industry position, call center or something else where you have to be on your feet/at your desk at all times, try to take some other tiny breaks throughout the day, no more than 5 minutes or so but enough time to grab a coffee or say hello to a coworker and ask them how they're doing, or even just close your eyes at your desk and take some calming deep breaths.
posted by capricorn at 12:57 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: With regards to being less snippy in emails, this is admittedly childish in the extreme, but it helps me in my most stressed-out times: pick a few stock phrases that you can pepper into your emails as 'social lubricant,' and then decide in your head what they REALLY mean. For instance, when I'm typing out "if you have further questions I would be happy to discuss," in my head I imagine that that means something like "if your dumb ass still doesn't understand I'll try again with even smaller words," or sometimes "Best Regards" really means "go shit on a crocodile" ... you get the idea. This sort of thing helps me stomach the various phatic niceties that need to be added to an email to keep it from coming off as too terse, and serves as a bit of a pressure valve at the same time (come to think of it, it may also just be an extension of ze frank's 'punctuation substitution').
posted by DingoMutt at 1:03 PM on August 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

Tactful emailing. First, never email angry. It sounds an insanely fast-paced work environment (you don't have time to choose your words?) in which one's first impulse is to REPLY RIGHT NOW!! Don't. If you think you can't be courteous because your hands are shaking with rage, it's better for all concerned if you respond a little later, when you're calm - say, after your noon walk.

Second, what are you saying in these emails? Is there name calling, sarcasm, what is so objectionable? Have their been complaints, and if so, about what exactly? Identify the mean stuff and make it a (quick but) conscious effort to leave that out. You can train yourself to express yourself professionally without time-consuming rewrites.

Third, identify the sources of the stress. If it's within your control to do so, make positive changes. Get creative and enlist the help of those around you, who would probably love to assist if it meant improving your mood. If not, then focus on yourself and how you react to the things beyond your control.

Last, I'm sure I'll be one voice among a chorus with this, but if you're experiencing nausea and shaking hands, you should consider talking to a doctor. They can help.
posted by falldownpaul at 1:03 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're looking to cure the symptom, but you should figure out why you are so stressed and then work to make it so that your job isn't that stressful.

Humans aren't meant to live stressed out. It's terrible for your health. If it's temporary, then just do what needs to be done, but if it's your way of life, find a new job.

Remember, we're all humans, and deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity.

If you want to fear of God put into you, my mother lost her job for raging at a subordinate and she never worked in that profession again.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:30 PM on August 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

I had a shitty job too, and I knew it was time to go when I started taking my snappy "Well, actually" work tone with friends over stupid things like rules to a board game. But yeah, I appreciate finding a new job takes time.

As far as speaking to people, my strategy ended up being to stand up to them, politely but firmly. I find this is the only thing that stops workplace bullying- it can be scary, but being overly polite and subservient only encourages these kind of people. I let them know I'm not a "soft target" by talking back, complaining over their head, doing whatever I need to do that I don't think will get me fired.

My other main strategy was to just get out of the office and take a walk around the block when I felt like I was going to blow up. That helped a lot.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:44 PM on August 27, 2014

pick a few stock phrases that you can pepper into your emails as 'social lubricant,' and then decide in your head what they REALLY mean. For instance, when I'm typing out "if you have further questions I would be happy to discuss,"

I do this too. I used to have a kind of code in my work emails.


means we're cool.

[their name],

means I can tolerate you.

[their name]:

means I hate you so so so much.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:47 PM on August 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Other folks have addressed the email thing, so I'm going to give you my talking to people trick. I spent many years working in food service and retail, often in management roles, and those are the kinds of jobs where you don't last too awfully long if you start telling people what you're really thinking about them. (Oh, the times I wanted to tell somebody they were a complete and total moron...)

So here's the first one: pause. Even in a fast-paced, GO GO GO environment, you can pause for 2 seconds. Literally, 2 seconds. Inhale, then exhale. Then speak. This gives your brain filter a chance to kick in. Y'know, the one that goes "No, rebooter, you may not throttle Jake from State Farm." Then you can talk, and it will already be a little calmer from your having taken that breath.

Second: This one's a little harder, but a lot more fun (at least for me). Change your way of thinking about all these people who are pissing you off. Instead of thinking to yourself that Bob's an asshole, and Fred's a jackass, and Ted in accounting, he doesn't even DESERVE two syllables, he's just an ass, just decide that they must just be suffering from some kind of incredibly painful gastrointestinal distress. Like, they've gotta poop RIGHT NOW, but they can't get away from working long enough to take care of it. And it's not just any poop, oh, no, but....well, you get the idea.

Third: This one's the hardest, and may take some practice. While maintaining a perfectly pleasant look on your face, and while still listening to what the other person is saying, and nodding as they're talking, you are cussing them up one side and down the other in your head. Important part - IN YOUR HEAD. Get inventive. Get creative. Learn how to cuss in multiple languages, and throw them into the mix. But do it all in your head. In my last job, as the assistant manager of a busy pizza joint, I had some seriously irate customers cussing me out over the phone one night. I simultaneously had a lobby full of customers staring at me as I tried to talk these (couple of different) irate customers down. Kept the pleasant smile on my face, uttered things out loud like "Oh, I'm so sorry, that must have been frustrating," and "Oh my gosh, how awful!" But all the while, I was calling them things in four different languages. And both times I got off the phone, folks in the lobby were incredibly complimentary on my handling of the situations.

Just in case you need some more fear of God put into you: I started my last job (Asst mgr o' pizza) mid-July. After multiple ER visits and a 3 day hospitalization for some incredibly frightening neurological symptoms (think multiple doctors going "Well, it COULD be a stroke....or maybe it's a partial complex seizure....") between mid-July and mid-August, my primary care physician very strongly suggested that the stress of working there was too high, and that I probably oughta not work there any more. I quit that day, and feel much better.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 2:32 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Humor can help, if you have a talent for it.

OTOH, you are wasting a resource. If you always testy, it buys you nothing. If are occasionally testy, it can work for you. (Curmudgeony sounds so much better.)
posted by SemiSalt at 5:14 PM on August 27, 2014

For your first question:

I have a chronic illness and two special needs sons. When they were little, I learned to fake patience by reminding myself 500,000 times a day that if I dealt with them in a negative way, I would not only have to do it over later but it would take at least 10 tens more out of me because they wouldn't trust me, they would have learned the wrong message, etc. It is kind of the idea of "If you do not have time to do it correctly now, how will you find time to do it over?" only magnified greatly. Like "If you can't put out this tiny little match now, how will you put out the raging inferno as the building burns to the ground and the volcano explodes impressively?"

That helped me (more often than not) take a deep breathe, count to ten, or whatever and be more diplomatic, explain instead of crabbing at them, etc.

For your second question: I guess that depends on why you find the job so stressful. A bit of detail on that might help us help you.
posted by Michele in California at 5:41 PM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

My solution to this is to Fake Perky. My big cheesy work smiles are secretly filled with rage because I can't go five seconds without being interrupted or whatever. The more mad or otherwise bad feeling I am, the more I smile, smile, smile and kiss ass and apologize and act SUPER perky and friendly. It works like fucking magic. The worse I feel, the HAPPIER a show I put on at work. Weirdly enough, nobody notices that I'm upset as long as SMILING is happening.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:53 PM on August 27, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for all your answers so far. I will try these at work tomorrow.

I'm striving to avoid ranting so here's some minimal detail as to reasons for stress: I am the only person who knows every project our team is working on, am the bearer of bad news, the person who has to put stress on others to achieve miracles and who has to talk everyone else down from stress, take most of the crap for my team's mistakes, and am the designated "person to interrupt if you need something". In other words, being stressed is my job. Additionally I have administrative responsibilities, which would be alright without all that other stuff.
posted by rebooter at 7:10 PM on August 27, 2014

It sounds to me like it would help to up your interpersonal skills. Get a copy of "Getting to Yes." It's a quick read and research-based and about negotiating. It might help some with "putting stress on others to achieve miracles." You could also look into books on exercising influence and maybe, I don't know, read "How to win friends and influence people."

Work on delivering bad news in the best way possible and with something actionable, some silver lining. I deal with LOTS of bad news in my life and I focus on "What is the silver lining here? Is there an opportunity? How can we communicate in a way that is productive, non-blamey and going to ease the pain as much as possible?" It makes a huge, huge difference.

I am a parent and my father and ex-husband were both career military. Taking responsibility for things, no matter who is actually at fault, is a paradigm that runs deep for both good parents and good soldiers. Maybe you could watch a few war movies? You could check out Behind Enemy Lines, which is loosely based on real life events. In the movie, an Admiral defies orders to get his guy out from behind enemy lines and, in the process, also gets out evidence of genocide which gets used in war crimes trials. I think the movie indicates the actual general retired after being offered the chance to be a paper-pusher. If the admiral won't follow orders, who will? So he knew when he made the decision that it was the right decision but would also involve falling on his sword.

When my special needs kids were little, I worked hard at making them feel okay with "interrupting mommy" or similar. I worked hard at making sure they understood that they NEEDED to tell me about spills and problems so I could clean them up and fix issues. And once they were convinced that it was their duty to report problems and I would not get mad at them, it took much less time and was much less stressful. I am guessing that people are uncomfortable with interrupting you and dumping on you and all that and it increases the amount of time, effort and emotional stress involved. I worked really hard at saying "It is information I need. You are not in trouble. You are not being bad. In fact, NOT telling me is bad." And then it became "Okay, ma, there is a spill." -- "Okay, kid, what did you spill?" -- kid names substance spilled so I have a better idea how I need to deal with it. Conversation over in seconds flat with no stressing about it .

It sounds like your job takes a whole lot of interpersonal skills and it sounds like that is not really your biggest strength. You can up your game, if only to be less crazy until you can get out. There are resources available on how to deal with conflict and social crap of that sort.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 9:43 AM on August 28, 2014

Screen all phone calls. Delete all emails that are just complaining or somehting someone could google on the internet, or that you are not the right person to answer. IF you take the crutch away, most people become better at figuring out things on their own by googling or looking at an org chart or whatever. Deleting it also keeps you from writing a condescending response whick could be worse than no response.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:25 PM on August 28, 2014

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