As a faculty member, I dealt with some of the misbehavior that's, frankly, cultivated in the academy, but as an administrator, most of my time is spent dealing with folks who are not behaving well. The misbehavior can range from actionable offenses such as violence and harassment to more pervasive issues such as incivility, email and verbal abuse, political power plays, and frank backstabbing. As a mentor and coach, these latter, more insidious behaviors are far more damaging to the folks I work with and take a greater toll on me personally. The last 2 days have been doozies. First, my usual careful email composition process failed to prevent a colleague from totally going off on me about a meaning he read into an email that simply wasn't there; my taking responsibility and apologizing for my lack of clarity did nothing to quiet his verbal abuse- sigh. Second, I found myself telling a program director whose usual MO is to complain about her people being woefully under-resourced relative to the rest of the college (a factual error) that in fact, there were plenty of folks who did make lemonade out of lemons, and that her view of the injustices suffered by her own relatively unproductive unit were not shared by others. My offer to work with her and her unit to develop time and resource management strategies based on what others have found useful was met with shouting and admonition that I simply do not understand- sigh.
Don't get me wrong- there is *plenty* I do not understand and there are *plenty* of times I make mistakes and end up eating crow (a taste you get used to), but I do know that despite my view or your view or his or her view, we all have the personal responsibility to treat one another with respect and civility. This is not an easy thing to do, but I have developed a few tricks that continuously serve me well in tense discussions, whether with faculty behaving badly or with my spouse or kids. I still plow it sometimes, but much less that I used to.
1. Shut up an listen.
I speak very little in confrontations with angry people these days. There are a few reasons for this- first, the psychologist in me knows that talking through what makes you mad can often help reduce anger. Second, listening longer helps me hear what the real reason behind the anger is- it usually is not obvious at first, but is masked in a bunch of emotional yuck. Finally, this strategy reduces the likelihood that I will say something stupid that I'll regret.
2. Allow silence.
Again, when someone is yelling at me and stops, it seems best for everyone involved when there's some silence between bouts of ick. First, again, it helps me keep from ejecting the venom that I might want to spew at someone who is totally out of line (ALWAYS a bad idea), and second, it can defuse the anger of the person who's yelling at me.
3. Ask for a solution.
When people are angry, they often are about what is wrong wrong wrong, not about how to fix it. Once people are done yelling and telling me how I (or their Chair, or the Dean, or the Provost, or the student, or Professor X) have wronged them, asking "Okay, so what would you like to have happen now?" puts the ball back in their court. Responses to this range from stunned silence to some options (giving you a place to start to help toward a resolution) or, often a response of "Oh, nothing- I just needed to vent/tell you how I was feeling/talk to someone about this."
4. Sing a little song in your head.
My favorite is "Bossa Nova Baby" by Elvis. Playing a little tune in my head while someone else is going off at me helps me keep things in perspective. Thinking about the music and lyrics distracts me from getting angry and potentially losing control of my words. I have yet to encounter a situation when reacting in kind to someone's outburst, whether justified or not, is the right decision for me.
5. Decide what hill you're going to die on.
Is whatever is going on really worth going to the mat about? Despite the ire and indignation of others, it may, in fact, be that that the crisis du jour is not THE BIG ONE. Not that there is not a big one- for me, I decided a while ago that academic and professional ethics are non-negotiable issues for me, and I will not turn a blind eye toward students or colleagues who act unethically. On the other hand, many perceived injustices do not rise to that level for me. For example, "My Chair always makes me teach in Friday afternoon and that's not fair. The Dean's office must do something about this"- well no, you and your Chair need to have a discussion about this- I will not become involved. Spending a little time deciding what your core values are can be an invaluable exercise.
6. Always remember your Mom/Dad.
Okay, this may be trite, but when you're in a situation where you or someone else is really angry, stop and think "Am I proud of how I'm acting right now, and would my Mom/Dad/other hero be proud of how I'm behaving right now?". If the answer is no, take some deep breaths, apologize if necessary, and make it right.
Wow- this is all so simple!!! Ha.
Of course, the only way I developed this list is by having some majorly embarrassing gaffes involving, in various combinations, mild swearing, weeping, nose-blowing, and storming out of meetings (not many gaffes, admittedly, but biggies). It's impossible not to have feelings in these jobs and interactions, but it's imperative to keep those feelings out of professional interactions. I've managed to hold my tongue in meeting after meeting and on many phone calls, only to go for a walk with a trusted colleague afterward to vent, to go to the gym and kickbox, or to blog away my frustration (case in point :)).
Remember- taking the high road would make your Mom/Dad/hero proud of you. Hang in there are remember to play nice even when others do not.