Why Second Punches – And Angry Emails – Make Situations Worse

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San Francisco 49ers’ Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and Detroit Lions’ Head Coach Jim Schwartz won’t be sending each other holiday cards this year.

You’ll see that Harbaugh, the winning coach, pushes Schwartz in the back which angers the Lions’ coach. Schwartz then bumps Harbaugh and follows him down the field causing people to separate them.

Dealing with Anger at Work
You’ve probably felt the same way as both Harbaugh and Schwartz at the office. Harbaugh represents the emotional side of you when you’ve won a hard-fought victory and can’t control your emotions to the point of disregarding how your actions impact others. Schwartz represents the passive aggressive/hyper-sensitive side of you which tries desperately to control your frustration at something bad that just happened.

How We Think About Retaliation
Harvard Psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert explains the reasons why human nature causes us to throw second punches, and subsequent ones, harder than the original one in this NY Times article “He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t.”

Physical Pressure Study
One of the two studies noted in the article put volunteers into pairs and attached a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers. Here is a description of that study and the results:

The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

Results of Physical Pressure Study
The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Different Perceptions About Giving and Receiving Pressure
Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

Strategies For Controlling Emotions At Work
You can use this knowledge about why we respond with greater force to an insult, attack, etc — or perceived attack — to choose whether or not you will respond with an angry email. Sending angry emails usually makes you look bad and out of control. You probably spend more time writing and editing the email than the other person does reading it.

Instead, here are three productive responses that will enable you to deal with your current state of being angry or frustrated instead of sending an angry email:

1. Write your feelings on paper — and then rip it up

2. Ask to speak with the other person — only after you’ve had time to regain your composure and have written your ideas so that you can stick to the subject and not the emotions

3. Consider whether or not you should spend time being upset — maybe you are giving the subject too much power and are responding out of habit and emotion

Let me know how these alternative solutions work for you.