For the past eight years, I have delivered a leadership presentation called Unleash Your Inner Tyrant! at conferences across 48 states, 7 Canadian provinces, and six Latin American countries. In that presentation, I pretend to encourage my audience to engage in all kinds of terrible leadership practices – outsourcing blame, avoiding contact with employees, making unreasonable demands, constantly criticizing others, etc. – and at the end I drop the satire and focus on more straightforward elements of effective leadership. People like that presentation because the delivery is unique and because talking about what not to do allows me to inject a lot more entertainment into a leadership keynote than is commonly the case.
However, every single time I finish that keynote, several people come up to me and say, “You must have modeled that after my old boss.” That’s no exaggeration; it happens every single time, and it’s always more than one person who says something. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never had a terrible boss or coworker, but it’s obvious that a lot of people have.
I hope you’re never in a situation where somebody decides to yell, scream, throw things, and otherwise intimidate you into acceding to their wishes. But it’ll happen. It’s happened to me, and it almost certainly will happen to you. The reason some people act that way is because it unfortunately works pretty well. Most of us would do anything to avoid being in such an uncomfortable situation, and yellers and screamers know that and have decided to use it to their advantage.
So here’s how you can make sure they don’t force you into agreeing to something you’ll probably regret later.
Do NOT Apologize for Your Emotional Reaction
When somebody gets in our face and starts yelling, some of us cry. Others start yelling right back. Myself, I tend to get very quiet, which unfortunately tends to make yellers yell even more because they take my silence as permission to continue. Whatever your reaction happens to be, don’t ever apologize for it. You’re not the one behaving like a child. Crying because somebody is yelling at you is not a weakness; it’s your body’s response to fear and anger. Accept it as part of who you are, and you’ll take away some of the power this person might otherwise hold over you.
Refuse To Engage
In general, yellers and screamers are hoping to get you to give them whatever it is they’re asking for as the price of getting them to calm down. If you do, they’ll know that yelling and screaming works, and they’ll do it again next time. So shut the conversation down, and if possible let them know that you are not going to listen to them until they can be civil. This includes your bosses, which might be a difficult thing to do but which is absolutely within your power. They can’t fire you summarily for refusing to listen while they yell at you, and if they threaten to then you can always threaten to sue them, which has a tendency to calm them right down.
Do NOT Allow These People To Steal Your Sense of Self-Worth
This one is hard, obviously, but it’s critical. You’re not being yelled at because you’re a bad person. You’re being yelled at because the person yelling at you either doesn’t know how to act like an adult, or doesn’t care. The fault is theirs, not yours, and you deserve better treatment. If you can’t convince yourself of that, find a friend or colleague who can remind you that you’re a good person. This is true even if you’ve made a mistake and deserve to be reprimanded. There’s a right way and wrong way to handle that situation, and the person yelling at you has chosen the wrong way.
Fundamentally, dealing with a yeller or screamer involves you a lot more than it does them. You’re not likely to get them to listen to reason while they’re foaming at the mouth, so focus on what you can control. Then go find a punching bag and hit it really, really hard.