Communicating When We’re Annoyed
Susan de la Vergne
Friends of mine who don’t work
in engineering generally assume that the
engineering workplace is a rational,
left-brained, emotionless environment where
subdued brainy people devise inventions that
solve techy problems and where everyone gets
along well all the time because they’re usually
just agreeing about inarguable facts.
Little do they know.
You know the engineering
workplace isn’t like that. Agreeing and getting
along with everyone all the time isn’t the norm,
and there’s no such thing as “inarguable.” Not
everyone is subdued. Not everyone is brainy, for
Instead, disagreements are
common. Sometimes they lead to outright
arguments. Competition in the industry is
fierce. Timelines are tight, and tensions run
high. People get frustrated, disappointed, or
offended. Or they become self-protective, maybe
even insecure. Criticism and blame aren’t all
And how do tension, frustration,
offense, and insecurity show up in the
workplace? In our communication with others—how
we speak to them and how well we listen, as well
as what we say in writing. Strained
conversations, anxious presentations, and angry
emails are all examples of how pressure and
disagreement play out on the job.
Frustration, stress, and anger
are, alas, common reactions to everyday work
situations. But communicating when we’re annoyed
or anxious opens the door to all kinds of
terrible things. We don’t listen. We say things
we wish we hadn’t. We forget important points.
We fight for attention. We compete rather than
speak. We “cc” the world on an email tirade and
Then, after the verbal sparring
or the angry email, we feel worse. Venting and
ranting don’t really make us feel better. What
really happens is that when we vent, when we let
it rip, we’re magnifying our anger. We make
ourselves feel madder—righteous, perhaps, but
mad nonetheless. Blood pressure goes up, and
good will goes down. No one walks away after an
argument feeling calm and balanced.
Think how much better our
communication with our colleagues would be if we
somehow managed not to be angry and
stressed-out, even (especially!) during
controversy or crises. Imagine how much more
productive we’d be if we were, say, patient
instead of frustrated. Yes, it’s hard to
imagine, I admit. Erupting is more common. But
is it better?
Staying Cool in the Hot Seat
I used to work with a tech
support manager who rarely came unstrung during
a crisis. Considering his job—which was often
attending to hair-on-fire emergencies—this was a
very good characteristic to have. Major system
down? He didn’t flinch. Response time tanking
and hundreds of users up in arms? He rallied
There were, however, people he
worked with who didn’t appreciate his calm
response to crises. They thought his lack of
obvious distress was unprofessional, that he
couldn’t possibly be taking the outages and
errors seriously enough if he wasn’t pacing,
yelling, or otherwise carrying on. Yet he and
his team were rock star problem solvers, and
they rallied to just about anything that came
their way. I’m convinced their success was due,
at least in large part, to their manager’s
ability to communicate with them well. No matter
the crisis, the information he shared was
complete, he listened thoroughly to them, and he
never flipped their panic switches to the “on”
position because he never freaked out.
This tech support manager
embodied something I came to understand better
as time went by: that our internal reaction to a
problem is separate from the problem itself.
When there’s a system outage, I can panic, freak
out, and wring my hands. Or I can keep my mental
balance. Regardless of whether I panic or keep
cool, the task ahead (find the problem’s root
cause, fix, test, implement) remains the same.
I’ll be better at getting it done if I don’t
panic or lose it.
The Nature of Problems
We tend to think that problems
and our reactions to them are one and the same,
that the problem makes me do something or be
something. Sev 1 system problems make me
anxious. But in fact it’s not the problem
that’s making you anxious. It’s you
that’s making you anxious. The problem by itself
doesn’t have the power to do that; only you do.
The fact that some people react to urgent
problems differently from you—fearfully or
calmly, for example—proves that the problems, by
themselves, don’t have the power to affect you.
If sev 1 problems had the power to make you
anxious, then they would make everyone anxious.
But, of course, not everyone does react the same
way because problems, themselves, aren’t doing
We don’t control external
problems but we do control internal problems
(reactions). If that distinction seems logical
but you’re not sure how it’s useful, consider
that when we control our internal reaction, our
state of mind, we’re much more likely to
communicate in a way that’s more complete,
better understood and better received.
Easier said than done? Of
course. Everything from frustration to freak out
is quite normal. Not optimal, not our “best
self,” but normal.
There’s no simple
technique-based fix for these kinds of
communication problems. You can’t count to ten
before you speak and hope that fixes it. Nor can
you assume that deleting your angry email before
sending it will improve your state of mind. And
there’s no faking your way through this, either.
You can’t hold a tension-free, conciliatory,
peace-making conversation with someone you’re
harboring critical thoughts about.
Just like any problem fix, if
you want to fix these communication problems,
you have to get at root cause. I’m not
suggesting you or your entire team needs a few
weeks of therapy to get at what’s wrong. There’s
an easier way to come at this, to defuse your
reactive state of mind.
We get a lot of practice
recognizing other people’s faults. We examine,
judge, criticize, and sometimes even expect the
worst of them, routinely! And that single
perspective—other people never measure up!—is
at the root cause of our dissatisfaction. It
drives us to be annoyed, impatient, distraught,
and distressed. It’s lurking between the lines
in every angry email. It’s the subtext of every
tense exchange of words.
So let’s shift our perspective.
Instead of assuming the colleague(s) we disagree
with are deserving of criticism, instead let’s
assume they're worthy of admiration. How many
people do we know who are really such great
disappointments? I’d venture to guess that most
of the people we work with are pretty smart.
Most of them come to work every day to do the
best job they know how to do. They’d rather not
make mistakes, and they don’t actually make
many. At heart, in fact, most of them are
probably agreeable, decent people (who are
probably loaded up with their own troubles and
insecurities) who are doing—just as we are—the
best they can. They have a lot of good qualities
we usually overlook and a few bad qualities we
usually focus on.
So if you want to defuse your
reactive, critical state of mind—which will
immediately improve your ability to listen and
handle difficult situations—take note of your
colleagues’ good qualities, and keep them in
mind while you’re talking or writing to them.
Even texting! Especially the colleagues you
struggle with the most. Maybe that’s your boss.
Or your boss’s boss. Or someone you have a long
history of arguing with.
You don’t have to tell anyone
you’re doing that. Just do it. (Sorry, Nike.)
There are many advantages to
this perspective shift. For one, it doesn’t cost
a cent. Another, it’s really easy. And the last
and most important advantage is that, when you
stop zooming to the bad qualities and instead
focus on the good ones, your outlook and
communications at work will improve immediately.
Susan de la Vergne is a
writer who worked in software development and
Information Technology leadership for a very
long time. Her latest book,
Engineers On Stage:
Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals,
is available from Amazon. More about Susan at
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