We’ve all had those moments of losing our cool. Often it happens in the car, when someone cuts us off and we lash out either vocally or demonstrably, venting our frustration into the vacuum. And sometimes it happens in a more public fashion. I witnessed two of these episodes recently, both in airports (another place that seems to send many of us over the edge).
In the first incident, a couple was late for their connecting flight, so late that the gate had already closed and the plane was in the process of pushing back. It was a small airport, and the rest of us watched as the woman banged on the door repeatedly, demanding that someone on the other side open it, and then both she and her partner turned on the gate agent, screaming at him and demanding to know why the plane had left without them. It was both fascinating and uncomfortable to watch, especially as their toddler wandered around the airport, happy and oblivious to his parents’ distress.
In the second incident, we were on one of the buses that takes you from the gate to your plane at Reagan National in D.C. It’s a silly experience, but necessary, and anyone who gets onto the bus early knows that there will be a period of waiting for the stragglers. As we all waited a man let loose to no one in particular (but apparently directed at his family) about what a stupid process it was, and how incompetent the people driving the bus were, and so forth, in a louder and louder voice. By the time we got to the plane, another, unrelated woman had joined in, complaining loudly for all to hear.
We’ve all been there. And yes there are places – in the car, in an airport – that tend to bring out the particular worst in all of us. But it’s worth asking ourselves in these moments, what’s to be gained? The couple in the first scenario did not berate themselves onto the plane, and frankly, who would want them there? The two individuals in the second scenario did not get us to the plane any faster, but they sure did irritate all of their fellow passengers.
Our attitude is a choice. We have no control over the attitudes and behaviors of others. Despite what we might tell ourselves, we can’t make other people better friends, partners, or colleagues. Banging on the door of the gate isn’t going to make the plane come back. And, most likely, yelling at the gate agent and calling him names isn’t going to get you better service.
The positive psychology researcher Shawn Achor tells us that 90% of our long-term happiness is predicted not by the world around us, but by how our brain processes the world around us. In other words, if we choose to see the world as out to get us, then that is how we will experience it. But of course, the flip-side of that is also true: if we choose to see the world as a generally positive, supportive place, then that is how we will experience it.
That doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen. But it does take some of the perceived negative intent out of those things when they do. Maybe the person who just cut us off is late getting to the hospital to see a sick loved one, and not just a jerk. Maybe the gate agent is just doing his job, and not conspiring against us.
This has real implications for our work relationships, as well. While it would be lovely to think that we are surrounded by hard-working, supportive colleagues who always have our best interests at heart, we know that’s not always the case. Sometimes people let us down at work, and it has consequences for our ability to do our jobs well. Sometimes people aren’t good at their jobs, or don’t treat us the way we would like to be treated.
It bears repeating: you have zero ability to “fix” them, to change their behaviors or their attitudes. All that you can do is choose how you will react. So in these moments, before your inclination is to lash out at them, take a deep breath and think about:
- What’s causing these feelings? I find that often when I get the most irritated in the car is when I’m running late somewhere, which is, of course, not the fault of all of the people around me. Is the root cause this other person’s actions or my own?
- What will my reaction get me? Is the momentary satisfaction of blasting another person worth the potential long-term impacts on our relationship? Will it get me the results that I am looking for?
- What do I not know about this situation? Is there a reason that this other person is behaving in this way? Are there some questions that I can ask to find out more?
- Who’s watching me? Who is going to learn from this moment, and what will they learn about appropriate behavior and about me?
A recent study in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology found that venting and complaining at work actually increases the impact of negative experiences. This doesn’t mean one should be a Pollyanna about work and life, refusing to see that anything can possibly be wrong. It does mean that we can all benefit from choosing our attitudes, in work, in life, and especially when the stakes seem particularly high.