How to Deal With “Desk Rage”

Author Advises How to Deal With “Desk Rage”
By Sheryl Silver

“If you’re on the receiving end of someone’s desk rage, understanding is a powerful tool to employ,” said Wolf. “If we can show that we understand what the person raging is saying, we can often diffuse the situation and help them deal with their grievance(s) in a calmer, more effective way.”

David B. Wolf, PhD, author
Relationships That Work: The Power of Conscious Living
You’ve probably heard of road rage — but what about “desk rage”? It’s a term used to describe the hostility and on-the-job outbursts people experience when they can no longer control their anger or cope with frustrations at work.

Desk rage isn’t a new phenomenon but according to David B. Wolf, PhD, author of Relationships That Work: The Power of Conscious Living, it appears to be on the rise.

“I don’t have statistics to document the increase in desk rage,” said Wolf, “but anecdotally, I am hearing about it more lately from managers with whom I do coaching.”

The stresses of the current economy may be a contributing factor. Besides rising fuel prices and lower home values, Wolf pointed out that after companies cut their employee ranks, as many have done recently, the remaining employees tend to inherit the tasks their terminated co-workers handled.

“Typically, these employees are asked to handle the increased workload with no increase in salary and no real expectation of job security,” said Wolf. “The situation is a recipe for frustration and a rise in desk rage.”

While Wolf says most people don’t handle desk rage well, he believes they can learn to cope more successfully with it by employing certain communication techniques.

For starters, Wolf said it’s important to remain emotionally neutral when an episode of desk rage occurs. “Sometimes the anger being expressed is about a third party — a boss, another co-worker. But even if the rage is directed at you, don’t react defensively,” said Wolf. “Take a deep breath, keep your voice low, and remember the person’s rage isn’t really about you.”

The key, according to Wolf, is not letting fear or your own anger take hold in such a situation. “If you’re on the receiving end of someone’s desk rage, understanding is a powerful tool to employ,” said Wolf. “If we can show that we understand what the person raging is saying, we can often diffuse the situation and help them deal with their grievance(s) in a calmer, more effective way.”

“Understanding, by the way, does not necessarily mean agreeing with the person,” added Wolf. “Sometimes we might think the person is justified in their anger but sometimes we don’t. How we respond to the person expressing the anger, however, is key to de-escalating the rage factor.”

“Mirroring” what the person is saying is one way to convey your understanding. This approach involves restating, as best you can, what you just heard the person say to you. For example, if the raging co-worker said, “You screwed up my presentation by not having the report I asked for. We’re going to lose this client thanks to you!” you could respond, “I know you’re furious. You’re upset I didn’t have the report you requested and think this could jeopardize our client contract.”

“This approach allows the outraged co-worker an opportunity to confirm that what you heard and understood was correct — or to say, No, that’s not what I said,” noted Wolf. “When this technique is utilized in labor/management negotiations, it’s helped to speed the result because it helps prevent misunderstanding while creating an atmosphere of understanding.”

What if you’re not on the receiving end of desk rage but feel as if you’re the person about to explode at work? Wolf recommends taking a deep breath and stating the facts of the situation upsetting you — minus any anger. For example, you might say, “The last time we met, you agreed to be at work on time daily and to call me if you were going to be late. Three days in the past week, you arrived more than a half hour late — and one of those delays was during a staff meeting when I really needed your assistance.”

Next, Wolf suggests using “I” statements to express how you feel. Regarding the previous situation, you might say, “I was frustrated by this and feel disrespected.” He suggests avoiding “you” statements such as “You made me angry.”

Finally, tell the person you’re annoyed with what you need or want, again using “I” statements. With the incident above, you could state, “I want an assistant who is respectful and responsible. I need you to honor your agreements.”

What’s the point of this approach? “We’re not denying our anger but by communicating in a less emotional and judgmental way, we’re maximizing the potential to have our concerns heard and acted upon positively,” said Wolf.

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