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Look Back in Anger

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No matter how openly you communicate with your clients or how sensitive you try to be to their needs, there are times when anger flares up. At best, it will sear anyone who has to deal with it. At worst, it can burn up an entire relationship.

Sources of anger are all around us. Shrinking wealth, corporate greed and corruption, and senseless violence around the world have stressed many people’s emotions to the flash point. Add the right spark, and these feelings can explode without warning.

If you’re facing anger in clients or colleagues, or feeling it yourself, here are some suggestions about how to deal with this most destructive of emotions.

My client seminar is supposed to be about ways to cope with the stock market downturn, but I’m afraid it will turn into an angry wrangle about greedy CEOs, rubber-stamp boards of directors, and balance-sheet scams. I’m sure some of my clients will want to know why I didn’t warn them about these practices. What can I say? To prepare yourself, think of all the ways you have helped your clients. Protect yourself emotionally by vowing not to take their recriminations too personally. (A technique I sometimes use in therapy work is to visualize myself surrounded by a light-filled membrane of energy that keeps me from absorbing clients’ negativity.)

If you are confronted with your clients’ anger, try to join with it in a measured way. Share your own anger and frustration about these companies’ dishonesty. Let your clients know if financial losses have required you to make changes in your own lifestyle. Misery does love company, and shared misfortune can help clients realize that even the pros couldn’t foresee what would happen.

But after you’ve made space for their angry reactions and partnered with them where you can, be sure to leave them with the bottom-line impression of your expertise. Remind them of the disciplines you follow to identify solid and trustworthy businesses. If you’ve stepped up your due diligence in light of the scandals, say so.

Soon after this event, it would be a good idea to meet individually with your unhappiest clients. Repeat the process of listening and empathizing first, then talking about the steps you’re taking to protect them, to see if you can bring them back on board. You may not be able to keep every client. But do your best, and let go of the rest.

A client couple of mine, now in their late 50s, provide financial support to his elderly father and mother. The wife told me she has always been bothered that his parents’ improvidence left them so needy in their old age. Now, with their own retirement portfolio hit hard by the market downturn, she feels downright angry that this commitment to his parents prevents her and her husband from putting more money toward their own future security. She feels too ashamed of these “selfish” feelings to discuss them with him. Is there any way I can help her? I think part of your job is to validate your client’s reasonable anger and frustration, and help her give herself permission to care about her own needs without feeling she is too “selfish.”

Most women are socialized not just to be accommodating, but to sacrifice their own needs to meet those of others. The tacit contract is: “I’ll overgive of myself to you and your family in exchange for being loved, admired, and taken care of.” If this contract doesn’t work out as expected, an angry backlash can result.

Be patient and compassionate in supporting your client’s right to feel concerned about her and her husband’s security. Seeing the parents lose their financial independence has probably driven home to her the danger of being ill-prepared.

I think communication between your clients will benefit them both. Encourage them to discuss what they can do to make sure his parents are supported, now and in the future, while helping the wife feel more financially secure and at peace.

I’m an advisor of Lebanese origin who is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Since 9/11, my referrals have dropped off, and I often find empty chairs around me at civic events. I seem to be angry all the time. What can I do? My heart aches for you, and for other victims of prejudice exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks and the horrific situation in the Middle East.

urge you not to keep your feelings bottled up. Over lunch or coffee, during a walk, or after a workout at the gym, share your hurt and anger with your friends or friendly colleagues. Many will feel upset that you have been placed in this situation. Some may even come up with creative solutions to help ease your pain.

For example, you might consider taking the bull by the horns by sending a letter to your clients and their friends. Explain that you have felt the effect of others’ prejudice despite your citizenship and loyalty to this country, and ask for their help in encouraging tolerance in the community. You might consider hosting a workshop or writing an article for the local newspaper.

If you take measures like these, I believe you’ll gradually see your referrals pick up. In the meantime, by harnessing your friends’ and colleagues’ good will and active support, you will feel less angry and alone.

My client is the widow of an office worker killed in the World Trade Center attacks. She’s furious that so much attention has been focused on the firefighters and other uniformed workers who died, and so little on people like her husband, who may also have been a hero in trying to aid his co-workers. She has a point, but this “injustice” is becoming a fixation with her. How can I help her? Your client is certainly not alone in her views. When I was a guest on a recent broadcast of “The Dolans” radio program, the widows of two Cantor Fitzgerald employees joined us to lament the lack of support for people in their situation.

Once your client knows you have heard her fully and empathize with her feelings, I would urge her to get together with others bereaved by the catastrophe. A self-help group doesn’t need a leader in order to foster support and healing. Further, this group might create some type of memorial to unsung heroes like her husband.

By encouraging her to transform her anger into action, you can help her feel less victimized, more empowered. With your support, she may well turn her life around.

When a client couple came in for an annual portfolio review, their tension was immediately obvious. The wife is angry with her husband because he refused to take money out of the stock market two years ago to buy a vacation home. Now, of course, their portfolio has lost value while second homes are pricier than ever. She’s angry with me, too, for going along with his decision. How should I handle this? I think a key question is whether their assets were appropriately diversified for the goals they wanted to reach. If this was not the case, you may need to acknowledge that the husband’s decision two years ago was probably unwise. In any event, you should validate the wife’s righteous anger about the way things turned out.

Once you salve her wounds a bit, remind both your clients that no one can accurately predict either stock prices or real estate values. Then, if they are willing to stick with you, revisit their goals so you can be sure of developing a plan that meets both the wife’s and the husband’s needs.

Sometimes it’s not possible to please both partners equally. In that case, it seems to me that the wife has a valid reason for feeling that her vote should count a little more heavily. But the solution ultimately has to feel like a “win” to them both, or it will become the source of further discontent.

A colleague in my planning practice has become extremely critical of me lately. He takes issue with everything I say. and speaks coldly to me. I’m at a loss to explain his hostility, unless it’s because he recently saw me laughing with another co-worker over lunch in a nearby restaurant. But this explanation seems so juvenile. Should I just wait to see if his anger blows over? If I were you, I would start by inviting this colleague to dinner. Tell him you value his friendship, and that it has been too long since you got together. Once you’re in a relaxed atmosphere, try to find out whether you have offended him. Even if you suspect that his anger is a defense against feelings of hurt and rejection (which are not exclusive to teenagers, I assure you), the true cause may be something else entirely.

In this delicate inquiry, an indirect approach may be best. Asking your colleague why he’s been acting so cold and critical might make him feel too vulnerable. Instead, begin by asking how things are going with him. This may help you see if his anger results from some kind of stress that’s spilling out inappropriately all over his life.

Once you get a sense of where he is in general, you can home in more specifically on relations between the two of you. I would start by telling him what you’ve always valued in him, or in your relationship with him. Then ask if you’ve done anything to upset him.

Listen for his response, then see how he acts after the dinner. If he stops attacking you, you’ve resolved the problem. If not, you may want to explore further what might be changing between you. But if nothing improves after you’ve given it your best, it’s time to back off and protect yourself from this guy’s bad vibrations.

Remember, anger is often a defense against hurt, helplessness, or fear. The better you understand your own anger, and how this emotion works to mask more vulnerable feelings, the more successful you will be in helping clients or co-workers address their own core motivations.

Above all, when anger flares up in your office, don’t meet it with defensiveness and anger of your own. Instead, try to “dance with the anger,” as an aikido master might put it, joining with disgruntled clients and providing them space to get their anger out. In this way, you can lessen anger’s emotional charge and transform it into something more positive that will enhance the success of your work together.