A few weeks after my disabled daughter died, I arrived on the campus where I was teaching to see flyers announcing a talk titled, “Have you killed a disabled child today?”
I went berserk.
By the time I finally came to myself, I had torn down a dozen flyers, stormed into and out of two faculty offices, and given a young college student such a verbal lashing that she disintegrated in tears.
Put that in the lowlights reel of the life of Dr. Scott Paine.
It would take a couple of years for me to see the pattern of these emotions as they played out in my classes, with my colleagues, even with my wife and children. Two years in which people experienced me as uncaring and strict to the point of unreasonableness.
Things began to change when I finally understood that those outer emotional expressions were a protective covering over the deep chasm of my grief. Once I acknowledged the why behind my behavior, I gradually was able to choose engagement with others in more positive ways.
The emotional vocabulary of public discourse has been impoverished in recent years by the growing freedom with which we explode at each other over matters grave and trivial. We’re all “angry” without really knowing why. We say it’s a particular party, official or policy, but rarely is that the truth.
It’s none of those things that make us angry, because none of those things make us angry. Rather, it is that we choose anger, often unconsciously, in response to something deeper and vastly more vulnerable. Sorrow. Frustration. Fear. Despair. Guilt. Self-loathing or, at least, self-doubt.
Rather than confront the wounded, pained, vulnerable reality, we rise up in rage, protecting ourselves and projecting a self-assurance that may, in fact, be a fraud.
Public leaders often bear the brunt of this new culture of anger. Of course, when it is others who rage at us, we are likely to respond in kind. Our anger is a tactical response to an assault that has prompted our own feelings of fear, grief, frustration, guilt or anxiety. Anger is our defense against further wounds to our vulnerable selves.
Owning our feelings lies at the heart of maturity and mental health. Learning to discern others’ feelings, similarly, is a critical skill of leaders. Appreciating where our audience is coming from (whether it’s an irate individual or a furious crowd) is the first step toward effective engagement with them.
We can, of course, simply push back, shout louder, rage more fiercely. Such tactics can work, at least as long as we are the loudest and most persistent. But to adapt a quote from Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, there’s always a bigger bullroarer.
Better to seek the underlying emotions and speak to them. Defuse the anger with a sincere as well as tactical show of deep understanding. Focus on the why, speak to the why, act on the why, not the noisy what that confronts us.
When we learn to know and engage the emotional why, we may find we can enlist more allies, defuse more political landmines, and advance the interests of our communities both more easily and more enduringly than any amount of belligerence could ever achieve.
Interested in hearing me speak live? I’ll be at the National League of Cities Congressional Conference with two opportunities to learn: Leadership 101- Rules and Tools and Leadership 201- Fostering a Culture of Ethics. Join me on Sunday, March 11.