Q I work with someone who is kind and caring, but who dwells on work-related anger. When I'm with her, I get sucked into feeding the anger. How can I help myself — and possibly her — break this pattern?
A: Ongoing anger is corrosive, but it can be enticing. Pay attention to the dynamics with your co-worker and learn to extricate yourself from these conversations.
There's a lot of emotional energy in anger, which can give a kind of "high." This masquerades as feeling energized, when it actually drains energy and the ability to foster positive outcomes.
When planning your approach, think about what you're gaining in these conversations. Perhaps you have an affinity for drama or need to be needed. There may be some enjoyment in being on the inside. Conversely, you may be uncomfortable but not know how to turn the conversation to the positive.
Consider the effects of being immersed in negativity. Anger creates stress, which has negative physical effects. Notice how you feel when you're in these conversations in terms of heart rate, breathing and general tension. Do you have a feeling of well-being? Contrast this to how you feel when you're in a calm or positive situation.
Consider your colleague's perspective, thinking about what she gets from maintaining a negative focus. Weigh whether this is part of a larger pattern or an occasional response. Make your own judgment about whether she's overreacting or the situation really is a problem. Even if there are real issues, there are other ways to handle the situation.
Finally, define your preferred outcome. Would you like to continue to engage with her, but in a positive way, or would you prefer to tactfully distance yourself?
You'll probably need to speak up. During a conversation, try deflection: "Let's not talk about work right now. How was your vacation last week?" Or turn toward the positive: "On the other hand, didn't you just get assigned to an interesting new project?" Or gently decline to participate: "You know, dealing with the negativity so often just isn't healthy for me. Can we table this for now?"
If you have a close enough relationship, you might consider a separate conversation about the ongoing negativity. This can be risky, because the anger may turn toward you. But it could also be helpful to you both.
Make sure she knows that you're not attacking her, that you value her as a colleague (and friend, if it's true), but that you've noticed a pattern that brings you down and that she may not have noticed. Ask permission to share your observations, and respect it if she declines. If she reacts strongly once you start, back off and re-engage when she's ready.
Take care of yourself, too. Use deep breathing and positive imagery to keep from getting sucked in. If you feel yourself engaging and will regret it later, excuse yourself, even for a moment. Monitor your participation day to day, knowing that your model will help change the conversations over time.
Actively choose a positive approach to help change the tone of these workplace conversations.
Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes.