When someone is completely exasperated or enraged, it is usually easy to tell. The body language gestures are rather specific and well known.
Rage is an extreme form of anger that has a special category because the person experiencing it nearly loses all control of her body. The extreme gestures of exasperation or rage are usually short lived and give way to more typical expressions of anger.
Here are a few things to look out for when dealing with an exasperated person.
Puffed out Cheeks
The genesis of this gesture is an exhale but with a closed mouth so the cheeks puff out. Of course, the steam coming out of her ears is imagined, but the look is unmistakable. This person is really upset.
Followed by open mouth with verbal gasp
The mouth opens and the person shows her teeth as she either screams or just gasps. The connotation here is that whatever happened to her is so extreme that she cannot imaging how to contain her anger and finds it hard to find adequate words to describe the situation rationally.
With a person who is exasperated, the hands are usually involved in the body language. Usually you will see both hands extended in front of the sternum with fingers rigidly curved as if the person is holding two invisible grapefruits. This symbolic gesture is a visual signal that the exasperated person needs to be restrained so as to not strangle the person causing her the angst.
Hands to face
The secondary gesture may also include hands to the face. The person would put both hands to her cheeks as she tries to restrain herself. Another form would have the person putting her hands on the top of her forehead as if she is trying to keep her skull from exploding due to the extreme pressure.
Eyes, eyebrows, and neck
The most common gesture with the eyes and eyebrows is a furrowing of the brows to reflect anger.
Another common gesture is a complete wide-eyed show of rage. A person who is totally enraged may have bulging eyes that look like they are about to pop out of the face.
You may also see obvious bulging ligaments in the neck, which is a common occurrence with rage.
An exasperated person will often roll her eyes in disbelief. It is like she is saying “How can you be so stupid?”
If the object of her anger is right there, you may see pointing with the index finger or a rigid vertical hand as she starts to verbalize what is upsetting her so much.
What to do when another person shows exasperation
People at this extreme need space to come to grips with what is going on inside. They need to feel heard, even if that cannot say a word. They often need time before they can speak. They are also looking for some form of response, but you need to be careful how you respond.
The first thing to do is not escalate the situation by mirroring the body language of the person expressing rage. Remain calm and let the other person blow off the initial steam without any comment. In this moment, it is so tempting to fight back, but that almost always makes things worse.
Think about being kind and caring at this moment. Don’t brush aside the whole thing, but also try to not appear condescending. Do not belittle her for losing control. Let the enraged person have her full say and consider carefully what response would de-escalate the situation.
By remaining calm, you take the fuel away from the anger of the exasperated person, but recognize that in some circumstances remaining calm can further enrage the person, so you need to read the body language accurately to know how to respond. It may be helpful to allow a cooling off period before trying to make a difference.
Once the person has regained composure, ask open ended questions to draw her out. Once she has expressed the root cause of the problem, then she may be able to hear and consider some ideas for how to move forward.
I think it helps to acknowledge the other person’s situation and show as much empathy as you can, once you are convinced the person is ready for dialog. If the situation were reversed, you might have had a similar reaction. By this method you can talk the other person down to earth and begin a constructive conversation of how to address the problem in a mature and rational way.
These actions will form a basis to start rebuilding trust with the other person. It may be a long way back to full trust, but you have to start with the proper baby steps.
Things to avoid doing
Do not go on the defensive or walk out. Do not attack or blame the person experiencing exasperation or rage. Refrain from snide remarks or making character assassinations.
Do not block the other person from expressing herself. Do not bully her into talking if she is not yet ready to talk. Don’t crowd the person; give her space. Refrain from dismissing the person.
The other side of the equation
The other side is what is going on inside the person who is witnessing the rage of another person. Someone expressing rage may be a trigger to those who have been abused in prior situations with someone else, like a parent or abusive spouse. A set of coping mechanisms may kick in as needed.
For example, the person may completely withdraw as a means of physical protection or experience genuine terror. If she was the potential trigger for the rage she is seeing, then strong feelings of guilt or shame may surface.
Both parties must use good judgment to de-escalate the situation and regain control. Once the situation has stopped boiling over, it is a good idea to debrief the flare up to identify things to do in the future that will prevent a recurrence. If done with sensitivity and kindness, the ugly incident may become the foundation for building higher trust between the individuals involved.
This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”
When someone is completely exasperated or enraged, it is usually easy to tell. The body language gestures are rather specific and well known.
In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules.
It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months or even years.
Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.
A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room.
The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day.
When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale and trust.
I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. The excuse was that his process knowledge was so important to the organization that he could not be fired.
Finally, the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?”
Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.
In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away or fearing that the cure will be worse than the disease.
The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.
Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:
• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.
The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group.
Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. You also run the risk of appearing to play favorites when you try to clamp down on other individuals.
The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions.
It is not possible to treat everyone always the same because people have different needs, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.
Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.
• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals
These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.
Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored.
One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic.
This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better.
If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.
The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.
The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.
Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.
We have all played the role of comforter at times in our lives. There are a number of body language considerations as we perform this important function.
The first rule when trying to comfort another person is to put on your figurative “listening hat.” Keep your ears open and your mouth shut.
Listen more than talk
It is annoying for a hurting person to get a few sentences into describing her pain only to hear, “Oh I have experienced that as well; my aunt did that to me just last month.”
If you are to provide comfort, try to have your output to input ratio be something closer to 10%, at least until the person has had the opportunity to tell the full story.
Use reflective listening where you let the other person know you are following the points closely with your following skills and an occasional natural reflection to indicate your understanding.
There is a caveat here. Most people believe they use reflective listening well, but they are actually clumsy with too many or poorly-timed reflections. Rather than help, poor listening actually makes matters worse by annoying the other person.
Touching the other person is often a way to provide some comfort, but obviously there are a host of caveats about using that technique. You have to use judgment and consider whether the other person would rather not be touched.
One possible way to analyze the situation is a derivative from the Golden Rule. Would you want to be touched by the other person if the roles were reversed? This idea is far from bullet proof, but it may provide some insight.
Touching may be effective with family or very close friends, but be extremely conservative with touching in a professional setting. Basically, don’t do it if you want to be safe.
Also, observe the overall body language as you approach the hurting person. If the individual pulls back, even in a slight way, it would be better to not use the comfort of touch, at least at that particular time.
This is not a time for the comforter to spout out platitudes of what might seem helpful to him or her. That kind of advice may be appropriate at some future time, but when the individual is hurting, he or she is in no mood for a sermon.
Seek to understand and empathize
By listening intently and asking questions, you can get the idea of what is causing the problem, but it is best if the hurting person comes up with what to do about it. Sometimes in an effort to be helpful, people will become prescriptive, and that often comes across as being pushy. It is better to ask occasional questions for clarification.
Ask open ended questions
Try to avoid asking a question that can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.” For example, if you ask “Has this happened to you more than once in the past week?” the person could just say “yes.” Instead ask, “How often have you experienced this, and what did it feel like?”
Let the other person “come to you”
It is obvious that the other person needs some comfort, and since you are there it is only natural to try and help. Let the other person come to you when he or she is ready for your help.
Playing the role of comforter is essential, and we have all done it at times. Recognize that to do this task successfully requires great tact and skill. Take your cues from the person who is hurting, and let that person have the floor most of the time.
This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language or on this blog.
Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.TheTrust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.
We have all been exposed to an employee satisfaction survey at some point in our working lives. For some of us, the idea of filling out yet another QWL (Quality of Work Life) survey is not nearly as appealing as having a root canal. I have witnessed a significant hit to morale in many groups as a result of these attempts by management to gather information. Let’s examine why employee surveys cause problems and suggest some antidotes that can make a big difference.
1. Questionable anonymity – Nearly all QWL surveys are advertised by managers as being anonymous. This is to encourage people to share information without fear of repercussion. Unfortunately, nearly all surveys these days are conducted electronically. Most people are aware that anything online can be traced, if a smart IT technician is assigned to the case. People simply do not believe the promise of anonymity, which lowers the validity of the data. One way to give slightly more confidence in the integrity of the process is to include a statement such as this at the end of the form, “You do not have to type your name on this survey because it is anonymous. We will pay no attention to who you are if you do not sign the document. However, some people do wish to be contacted personally to give further input that might not be adequately covered on the survey. For that reason, there is a line to give your name if you wish. Someone will get back to you.”
Of course, no statement by management is going to convince the die-hard skeptics, but this explanation will assist most people. Another action that can help is to have a shop floor person (perhaps a known skeptic) participate in the data analysis phase, so he or she can verify personally that the managers do not know who said what.
If you claim anonymity but are quietly keeping track on the side out of curiosity, then there is no hope for you, and you should get out of the leadership occupation immediately.
2. Poorly worded questions – many managers believe that putting together a survey is a simple matter of writing a few questions about how people feel. Actually, survey design is a rather complex and exacting science. There are numerous ways to present questions that will yield meaningless (or at least ambiguous) information. There are also some methods that will generally produce usable data. The cure for this problem is to have someone who is trained on survey questions actually construct the instrument. If you have not had at least one course in experimental research design, then it is best to leave the matter to someone who has.
3. Long and tedious survey – It is not uncommon for QWL surveys to contain over 100 detailed questions. It is amazing that the designers of these surveys do not realize the obvious fatigue factor involved in completing one of these burdensome questionnaires. A much more accurate reading can be obtained by keeping the number of questions to 20 or less. This can be accomplished by paying attention and only asking important questions. Leaving out the fluff can cut the time to take a survey by more than half.
4. Management interprets the information as they please – It is frustrating to witness how managers wave away complaints or gripes on surveys as simple whining. Or they might shrug their shoulders and say, “there is absolutely nothing we can do about this issue,” so they consider the input as moot. The antidote here is to not ignore input regardless of how painful it is or how frivolous it seems. All input needs to be considered valid and not assumed away with some convenient rationalization.
5. “Nothing ever changes” – This is a common theme on the shop floor. “We take these stupid surveys, but nothing ever changes.” The antidote to this habitual problem is to actually take concrete actions based on the survey, then (and this is the part most managers forget) advertise that the changes are being made as a result of the QWL survey. Rather than saying, “We are going to add a second brief afternoon break,” say “As a result of your input in the recent survey, we are changing the break rules to allow a short second break in the afternoon. As always, we appreciate your candid feedback.” If managers do not make a conscious effort to communicate that changes are the result of input, people will usually not make the connection. Once a change is made and it becomes habit, people forget that there was a change, so the perception of “nothing ever changes” is common.
6. Managers try to react but do the wrong thing – It is far better to let the shop floor people be involved in decisions of how to improve conditions based on survey results. It may take a little more time, but the quality of process changes will be far better if those impacted the most have a say in their invention. They will make the changes work rather than wonder and push back at the clueless inventions of upper management. It is better to have workers inside the tent piddling out, than outside the tent piddling in.
7. Managers reacting to the vocal minority rather than the silent majority – This problem is common when surveys give the opportunity for open-ended comments. People on the fringe can give strong input, and managers might mistakenly interpret this to be the will of the majority. The simple antidote to this problem is to verify that a strong message really does come from several individuals rather than one highly disgruntled outlier.
8. Survey not tested for validity – For a survey to be useful, it needs to measure the phenomena it purports to measure. There are statistical techniques for determining if an instrument has validity. You may not have the time or money to invest in a professional survey designer to test the validity of an instrument, but at least you should ask the question of whether you are actually getting valid information.
9. No thought to reliability – The reliability of a survey is different from validity. For a survey to be reliable, it should produce a similar result if repeated and there have been no changes in processes since the last survey was taken. If survey results are all over the map when nothing in the environment in changing, it is a sign that the instrument is not reliable (repeatable).
10. Poorly communicated – When surveys are sent out, the cover letter explaining the purpose and process is a critical document. Many managers have an administration person whip out a paragraph of “management speak” like this. “It is vital that we know what people in our operation think in order to continually improve working conditions. Please take the time to fill out this anonymous survey that will give us the information. Thank you.” Here is a different note where the manager took the time to set up the survey for success.
“We are going to re-do our strategic plan, and it is important to include your input before making changes. The attached survey will begin the process. Before you take this survey, please reflect on the following points:
• The survey really is anonymous – we will have shop floor people help with the analysis to verify no names are attached to the data.
• We will summarize the data for you as soon as it is received.
• We will use the information as the basis for a series of meetings (you are invited to participate) on how this business can be improved.
• We will be making changes based on the results of this survey.
• We are all part of making this organization a success.”
With an introduction like that, employees will know this survey will likely have some impact and their viewpoints matter. It is critical to not waste credibility, time, and energy on a poorly designed and administered QWL survey. If the above 10 points are considered when designing an employee survey, it will produce results that can be the basis of solid organizational progress.
The Socratic Method uses a series of questions designed as a discovery process for the person who is being questioned. The technique is often used in educational venues to help students learn critical thinking skills. I believe the application of the Socratic Method at work can be a powerful tool if used carefully. It can also backfire if used poorly or with a heavy hand.
An example of a work situation where the so-called Socratic Method might come in handy is a situation where you want to advocate a specific course of action to a superior but you expect significant pushback. Let’s picture a situation where you are trying to convince your reluctant boss to approve some off site training which includes travel for you.
The straightforward approach is to: explain the benefits of the training, advocate why this will be helpful to the organization, and ask for permission to travel to the seminar. However, based on your knowledge of the boss in previous encounters, you suspect that he is going to turn you down flat regardless of the promised benefits. In this case, advocating a course of action and arguing your case will likely produce a negative response. Furthermore, once the boss has said no, subsequent attempts to change his mind will only be an annoyance. You are likely to hear “What part of NO didn’t you understand?”
Using the Socratic Method means asking the boss questions about his satisfaction with how things currently are. You now stand a better chance of getting a reaction you can then build, with additional questions, into a stream of thought. Continuing to ask leading questions rather than advocating a position allows the boss to discover some of his own thought patterns that can be consistent with what you would have advocated in the first place.
Perhaps your final question in the series might sound like this. “I wonder how, I might be able to get the skills to do what you’re suggesting”? After a few seconds of thought, The boss might reply, “Well, you could get some training and bring those skills back to our group.” You might then reply, “That’s a great idea! Would it be okay if I looked into some training options to accomplish that”? Note that you are now in a position to praise the intelligent boss for suggesting something you wanted to do all along. You get what you want, and the boss is your hero rather than a tight-fisted curmudgeon.
Now the boss has mentally committed to having you get some training because the idea was generated by his brain rather than yours. When you come back the next day with a specific proposal to get the training, you’re far more likely to have the boss agree to the expenditure than if you had simply advocated the benefits of doing it yourself.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article there is a huge caveat to applying the Socratic Method. It is because the technique is fundamentally manipulative in nature. You have an idea what you are trying to get the boss to verbalize, and you keep asking questions that direct the conversation toward that end. If you are not extremely deft at posing this string of questions, the boss may become highly annoyed and suspicious that you have an ulterior motive for asking your open ended questions. If this is the case, you may be doing more harm than good. Socratic questions must be used with great skill. Let’s examine six categories of Socratic questions and suggest a method of application that may help you be successful.
Below is a list showing six different types of Socratic Questions as outlined in a Wikipedia entry. I think this handy guide is useful because it provides different avenues of logic, so the questions don’t all begin to sound the same.
1. Questions of clarification:
To prompt others to explore their questions and prove basic concepts and ideas of arguments Examples: What examples can you provide? What do you mean by…?
2. Questions that probe assumptions:
To query others’ beliefs concerning their arguments. Examples: How did you arrive at those assumptions? What if we looked at it this way?
3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:
To delve deeper into supporting claims others use for their arguments. Examples: How do you know this? What is the cause? Can the evidence be refuted? How?
4. Questions that probe perspective:
To have others query their viewpoints or perspectives; they attempt to look at the argument from another perspective. Examples: What is another way of looking at this? What are strengths and weaknesses of your perspective?
5. Questions that probe consequences:
To identify consequences and determine if they are desirable; use as others develop arguments and logical consequences become foreseeable. Examples: If we follow your argument, what are the consequences? Are the consequences desirable?
6. Questioning the question:
To probe the intent of asking the original question. Examples: Why did you ask the question? To what point are you driving?
A best practice for applying these questions is to mix up the type of question as the conversation unfolds. By applying the specific type of question naturally as the discussion proceeds, it seems more expected and less manipulative.
If your true intent is to naively probe the thoughts that are under the surface in the other person’s head, you can gently guide the conversation without detection. In other words, do not try to corner a person into saying something that he or she does not really want to advocate. That is true manipulation, which will invariably backfire. Instead, by using the Socratic Method, help guide the discussion so the person first sees the true benefits from his or her own perspective. The person then becomes an advocate instead of a roadblock.
It occurs to me that using the Socratic Method can be helpful, but it requires skill and practice to apply it successfully in the real world.