The ultimate emotional intelligence is being able to recognize and respond to what our emotions are telling us. Leaders especially need to recognize and respond not only to their own emotions, but to the emotions of the people they lead. If we fail to respond to the messages of emotions, they escalate.
Did you know that anger is about boundaries? As Karla McLaren shares in her book, The Messages of Emotions, the message of anger is that a boundary has been crossed. The key is to recognize what the boundary is, and then choosing if and how to protect what’s inside. It could be physical, emotional, spiritual, or something else that is precious to us. We can then be thoughtful about how to respond. When someone else is angry with us, it pays to know what boundary of theirs we need to respect. Mothers protecting their children from harm is an example. If a stranger gets too close, the mother gets angry and takes action to protect her family.
When I work with my horse Echo, I ensure that he respects my physical boundaries for the safety of us both. I may need to remind Echo several times where the boundary is. It can change. For example, I can require Echo to be further away from me for any number of reasons, and it would be my job to inform him of the new boundary. If Echo knowingly decides to test my boundary, my anger kicks in, and I inform Echo very clearly that it’s time to back up. Of course if he doesn’t, my anger and message to him escalates until he does.
This dynamic can apply to office space, physical proximity, roles and responsibilities, or any number of situations in the workplace. If we don’t respond to the message of anger, it escalates into rage or fury. If it goes underground without being responded to, it will surface later-and possibly louder and out of proportion for the situation at the time.
The key is to work with anger to recognize and use the information it is giving us constructively. In its purest form, anger is simply a call to have the courage and self-respect to defend something that is important to us.