Anger management

Anger is a perfectly natural emotion, but it is important to recognise it by identifying the cause and treating it as an 'offer' to which we have to respond quickly and positively, John-Paul Flintoff says.

Anger management

What makes you angry? Seeing a rival agency’s work all over the place and knowing you could have done a better job? Not being appreciated for the creative genius you are? Or having to deal with the monstrous egos of so-called creatives who think they have some kind of genius, when all you want is a lingering packshot?

Advertising may not be the angriest industry in the world – but it’s up there. Ad people are subject to all kinds of frustrations. You could draw up your own list of things that make you angry – go on, write them down.

And I’m sure you could come up with more than three. Not only because you work in advertising, but because you’re human. It’s perfectly normal to get angry. But too often we hide away our anger and pretend it’s not there – which doesn’t resolve it, but allows it to fester.

If you are a hardened ad type, you may not like the touchy-feely turn I seem to have taken. But you can’t afford to ignore this, because it’s not only about you. Your clients get angry and their customers get angry. Consumers can get very angry.?  (I overheard one complaining about the new Guardian campaign. "The weekend is the only thing I have for myself; The Guardian doesn’t f*cking own it," she said.) And you can’t afford to let these people get angry.

As a writer, and a member of The School of Life, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how we handle our anger – and I was fascinated to learn recently about new research into precisely what makes us angry, initiated by the start-up Johnny Fearless, together with the research agency X Marks The Spot and with statistical research by YouGov.

This identified a number of things that get us angry: bad manners, poor customer service, inconsiderate neighbours, anything to do with banks, other people not accepting their responsibilities, road rage, Starbucks, rising petrol prices and utility bills, government austerity measures, queue-jumping and a general perception that life is unfair. A number of respondents thought it could only be a matter of time before trouble hits the streets.

What fascinated me was that Johnny Fearless dared to draw attention to a toxic emotion that most advertisers strenuously ignore. Other agencies work round the clock to associate brands with joy or happiness. What was going on?

Neil Hughston, a co-founder of Johnny Fearless, invited me to give a talk about anger (and, to be perfectly clear, he paid me to do so). When we first met, I wondered if he’d chosen the topic because he was angry himself – he did talk a fair bit, with evident unhappiness, about dog-owners fouling pavements near where he lives. But I don’t think that was it.

What seemed to exercise him, and what interests me, is how we deal with anger. One approach, which doesn’t tend to be helpful, is to take it out on the people around us. Get shouty in the office, then again at home with your spouse – who then takes it out on the children, who in turn kick the dog or go into school the next day and start bullying somebody.

A more sensible strategy is to recognise the anger and have a careful look at what’s going on. Because it’s only by identifying something as a problem that you can do anything about it. It would have been hard for the civil rights movement to achieve what it did if they had not noticed that black people enjoyed fewer rights in the US than others. With hindsight, this point seems ridiculous, but it’s amazing how often the point is overlooked when it comes to our personal situation: you need to identify a problem before you can fix it. So have a think about the things that make you angry. But be warned: it’s not always the specific, tiny thing people actually talk about – such as whether the packshot is long enough.

More often, the underlying cause is a sense that we have not been "seen" or heard by others. And I’ll come back to that shortly.

Another general, underlying cause of anger is the feeling that we are powerless. But we are never powerless. Performers know this. A king on stage only looks powerful because everybody else is lying flat on their face before him. If they got up and turned their backs to him and got on with something more fulfilling, the same king would no longer be powerful. The status quo is like that king: if you don’t like the way things are, get up off your face and do something better. And don’t make the excuse that you have to report to a boss – or a client or a board of directors – because a servant can be powerful too. So by all means stay flat on your face if you want, but remember that’s your choice – and stop complaining.

If you don't like the way things are, get up off your face and do something better. And don't make the excuse that you have to report to a boss or a client

Anger is a call to action. It’s sparked by something you don’t like, but it takes you on an adventure. As somebody who trained as an improviser, I often suggest that people look at this as if they too were improvisers. On stage, the secret of success is to go with whatever the other person happens to offer you. If somebody says "Happy birthday!", you must accept that premise and respond accordingly, or else they will look like a chump – and so will you. Even if they offer you something you don’t like, you must make the best of it: if a fellow improviser falls on the floor and abandons you to the audience, you can either wish the ground would swallow you up or accept their "offer" by pretending to bring this "corpse" back to life, or pretending they’re in bed and jumping in beside them. To the audience, you will look amazingly entertaining and clever.

Remember: everything is an offer – even the things that make you angry.

Dale Carnegie understood this and, after reading How To Win Friends And Influence People a few years ago, I put one of his suggestions to the test. At the time, I was writing a blog about "green" issues for The Times. As I had feared, this won me praise from people who already considered themselves green and barrowloads of hostility from sceptics.

The hostile comments often came from people with pseudonyms such as "Dark Rider". What they could hardly imagine was that The Times, on a tight budget, had appointed me to be the moderator of my own blog – so I could see the e-mail accounts associated with each comment. And I decided to reply with a personal e-mail to everyone who called for me to be, for example, sacked for general uselessness etc.

"Dear Alan," I might start (that being the real name of Dark Rider). "Thank you very much for taking the time to comment on my blog. I realise that you must be very busy and I am extremely grateful…"

You might think I was being sarky, but I wasn’t. To do this effectively, it was necessary to believe the recipient was a nice person. I went on to thank them for pointing out something related to my post. Then I restated briefly what I had hoped to put across, without any trace of defensiveness, and conceded that I had obviously failed to convey that as I’d hoped. Finally, I said again how grateful I was that they’d bothered to comment.

You might like to try the same yourself next time you get unwelcome feedback. To be perfectly clear, I didn’t fight back. Not one bit. And the result was the same every time: I quickly received a reply, which usually went something like this: "Thank you so much, John-Paul, for bothering to reply to my comment. I never imagined you would read it and, having noted what you wrote in your e-mail, I can see what you were trying to say in your blog post, and I think I may have overreacted to it. Please don’t take it personally. Anyway, thanks again for getting in touch."

Better still, these former critics frequently jumped in to defend me when somebody else left a hostile comment on subsequent blog posts. At the time, I was as baffled as I was delighted by this turnaround. Having thought about it for some time, I’m now convinced that they felt they had been "seen" and heard – and immediately their anger dissolved.

This approach might help you turn angry clients and consumers into happy ones. In which case, you might want to consider this: if everything’s an offer, what’s the best way to turn the thing that makes you angry into something useful?

John-Paul Flintoff is an author and journalist