Episode 19: Coaching Through Anger

If you have been putting into practice everything from the Getting Started series, you're probably starting to generate interest in your coaching. So on this episode, we're covering what you should do when someone approaches you and says “Hey, I'm interested in learning more!” Because sometimes, that can be one of the scariest parts of the process.
Coach with Clarity Podcast - Coaching Through Anger

19: Coaching Through Anger

There's so much going on in the world today that's causing many of us to deal with unwanted or uncomfortable emotions and anger is certainly at the top of that list.

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Show Notes

There's so much going on in the world today that's causing many of us to deal with unwanted or uncomfortable emotions and anger is certainly at the top of that list.

For many coaches, anger can be a particularly difficult emotion to support our clients through because it can feel so personal, even though it's merely the client trying to express some pent-up emotions within the context of our coaching session.

That's what we're looking at today, in the second episode of my miniseries on coaching through difficult emotions. We're going to explore the types and sources of anger, how to know when it might be time to refer a client to a mental health provider, as well as steps and strategies you can use as you coach your clients through anger.

Hopefully, this episode will be a first or continuing step in your journey to deepen your coaching skills and step into the powerful and knowledgeable coach you can be.

Topics covered

  • Going beyond the labels of positive or negative for our emotions
  • How to determine when a client's anger goes beyond the scope of coaching
  • What is anger?
  • The physiological side of anger
  • The different triggers of anger
  • Why frustration and annoyance are often made worse by making it all about ourselves
  • The meaning behind explosive outbursts of anger
  • How people use aggressive anger as a tool for maintaining power and control
  • Why I often find it appropriate to refer clients with recurring, aggressive anger to a therapist
  • Why many of us are experiencing justifiable anger right now
  • The relationship between justifiable and aggressive anger
  • Harnessing your anger and privilege to support Black and brown people and racial justice
  • Why thinking about anger as a secondary emotion often works against our mission as coaches
  • Supporting our clients by re-framing anger as a tandem emotion
  • Taking your personal safety into account
  • Why always important to tune in to your gut, especially when dealing with anger
  • The 5 steps I use when coaching through anger

Resources mentioned

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Well, hey there, friend. Welcome to another episode of the Coach with Clarity podcast. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough, and I am so honored that you are joining me for another episode. If this is your first time listening to the Coach with Clarity podcast, I am particularly grateful andI hope you find today's episode helpful. 

You can certainly listen to it on its own, but it is the second episode in a miniseries I am doing on coaching through difficult emotions. So last week I covered the emotion of sadness, and you might find it helpful to listen to that episode first. But there's also no reason why you can't simply dive into the show today as we explore another difficult emotion that often comes up when we are coaching our clients, and that is the emotion of anger.

So as I record this podcast episode, it is late June 2020, and there has been a lot that we have had understandable angry reactions to, whether it is Coronavirus, whether it is racial injustice, whether it's feeling like we can't safely leave our homes. There is so much going on in the world today that is causing many of us to deal with unwanted or uncomfortable emotions, and anger is certainly at the top of that list. And I know for many coaches anger can be a particularly difficult emotion to work with, with your clients, because sometimes it feels so personal. It can even feel like it is directed at us, when oftentimes it's not, it's merely the client trying to express some pent-up emotions within the context of our coaching session. So that's what we're going to explore today. 

In this episode, we're going to talk about what anger is, and the different types of anger that we might have seen in ourselves or in our clients. I also want to spend a little bit of time talking about whether anger is a primary emotion or a secondary emotion. And then finally, I want to leave you with some suggested steps on how to coach your client through their anger, and you may even find it helpful for some self coaching, when you yourself are feeling angry as well. 

So as I mentioned, during last week's episode when we were talking about sadness, I really approach every emotion as neutral. It's not a good emotion or a bad emotion. It's not a right way to feel or a wrong way to feel it simply is. Now that doesn't mean every emotion is something that's desirable or even feels good, and I think for many of us, anger would fall into that category of an emotion that we don't necessarily want. And yet anger can serve a purpose. We're going to talk more about that in today's episode. 

Again, I'm going to remind you that I will often use language to describe anger or sadness or other comparable emotions as being unwanted or uncomfortable, and I will really try to refrain from using the word negative to describe it because again, emotions are not positive or negative. They simply are, it's the meaning we ascribe to them and then the action steps we take from them, that maybe can fall into an area where we can judge them as being good or bad, or helpful or unhelpful. 

I also want to remind you that last week, we spent a lot of time talking about when it might be appropriate for a client to seek support from a therapist versus a coach. We discussed that last week in the context of sadness and depression, and how to differentiate between the two and some resources that could potentially help you do that. And I think it's also important to remember that because anger is a normal part of a human emotional spectrum, being angry is not in and of itself, a mental health disorder. However, anger can certainly be a symptom of an underlying condition that is best treated by a healthcare professional, and possibly a mental health provider as well. 

So the strategies we're going to talk about today in terms of coaching your client through anger are really meant for clients that are exhibiting what we might think of as typical or appropriate anger. And again, as a coach, you will need to use your powers of discernment and partner with the client to assess whether this anger may go beyond the scope of what we can cover in coaching, and whether they might be best served by a therapist. Again, I want to refer you to the International Coaching Federation's white paper on when coaches should consider referring classes to a therapist, because I think you'll find a lot of helpful information in that document. 

But in our work coaching our clients, we are going to be facing these difficult emotions, and it certainly can be within our wheelhouse to support our clients through that, provided that we do have the training, the supervision, and the experience to do so. And hopefully this episode today will be the first step or a continuing step in your journey to deepen your coaching skills, and really step into the powerful and knowledgeable coach you can be. 

Now if you'd like support in that journey, you are always welcome to come check out the Coach with Clarity membership. That is a growing community of intuitive, empathic, heart centered coaches who are working together to build their coaching skills and their coaching businesses and you will receive regular training every month, designed to help you become a stronger coach and serve your clients more powerfully. So if you are currently on your journey of becoming a coach and you would like some training, some support, then I would strongly encourage you to check out the Coach with Clarity membership, which you can do at https://www.coachwithclarity.com/membership

All right, let's go ahead and get started on our discussion about anger. As I was preparing for this week's episode, I did a lot of research and I found a definition of anger through the American Psychological Association website, and I believe they cited it from the Encyclopedia of psychology, but they describe anger as antagonism towards someone or something that has intentionally done you wrong. 

So you are having feelings of frustration, intolerance, pain even as a result of something that has happened to you either by a person or an event or circumstances. I think it's also helpful to remember that while anger is certainly an emotion, it also contributes to how we feel physically in our body. We do experience biological and physiological changes when we are in a state of anger. 

And when I was thinking about the causes of anger, when I reflect back on what's made me angry or what has made my past therapy or coaching clients angry, I routinely saw anger as a response to a threat. Now that threat may have been a real and true threat, or it may have been a perceived threat. It may have even been a threat that was cultivated in one's mind. So it was thoughts that were leading the person to feel threatened. But that anger response was often a stress response because the person felt threatened. Again, that event that triggered the feeling of being under attack could be external. So it could come from another person or from an event that's happening. Or it can be internal, it can be from thoughts and sensations and memories that we are generating. 

So I think it's important to remember that when it comes to considering an anger trigger, we could be talking about a person, we could be talking about an event, we could be talking about a concept, we could be talking about a memory. I want us to keep a really open mind when we are thinking about the reasons behind the anger when we're working with our clients and with ourselves. Because again, as coaches part of our role is to create that space of non judgment where our clients can fully explore what's going on. And we can start by understanding that there are a multitude of reasons why someone might be angry. And as we explore it with our client, we are going to be in a position where we can normalize the anger. But more on that later, let's still talk about maybe some of the different types of anger that you might see when you're working with your clients.

Now, the first type of anger that comes to mind for me is one that's really rooted in frustration or annoyance. I think about the events leading to this anger response as being, generally speaking in the mild-to-moderate range. So it might be a little annoyance, like going to the grocery store and getting a cart where the wheel is wobbly. ,and every time you walk down the aisle with it, it kind of veers to the left or veers to the right and you're crashing into things. I mean that in the grand scheme of things, that's a pretty minor annoyance, but it can certainly lead to frustration and even anger. I think other kind of day to day examples might be when you're driving and someone cuts you off, or if someone is running late to a meeting that you have If they fail to show up all together, any time we feel disrespected, or that someone has abused our time, or energy or goodwill, that often leads to a sense of frustration or annoyance. 

So that's certainly one type of anger to consider, and to remember that when these episodes happen that invoke that frustration anger in us, it's typically because we have internalized or personalized the intention of the other person or the event. We've made it about us. So using the example of someone running late to a meeting, I might think to myself, “That person's running late because they don't care about me and they don't respect me. They don't value my time”. I am making it all about me. And I'm not necessarily considering what might be going on for the other person, and that it may have nothing to do with me at all, but I have ascribed a very personal meaning to it, which heightens my anger. And that's something I think many of us do when we get frustrated or annoyed. And so again, I just want to call that out as a typical response to that type of anger. 

I think we should also talk about a second type of anger, which is more in the range of explosive outbursts, or even, and we see this a lot in young children, temper tantrums. And this typically happens when our needs go unfilled. So there's something we want, we don't get it. Again, we get frustrated, but we tend to have an emotional outburst about it. And this is not limited to children, although it's definitely something we see in toddlers,and let's be honest, in teenagers as well, really, it runs the gamut. And then yes, even as adults, sometimes we see someone have a complete meltdown. 

So that kind of explosive anger might feel like an extension of that frustration or annoyance, anger that we talked about before. But again, the meaning behind it is because someone is not getting their needs met. So in that first type of anger, it's generally because someone or something has done something to us with this type of anger, it's because we're not getting what we want. 

There's a third type of anger that I want to talk about today, and that is more of an aggressive posturing anger. So this is where someone, either mindfully or even unconsciously, is using anger as a tool to dominate another person or to manipulate them, to force them into doing something or to control them, and this is also the type of anger where we see intimidation tactics used and bullying. Aggressive anger is very much about maintaining power and control over a person or over a situation. 

My take is that when someone exhibits this type of anger, it often masks a deep-seated sense of shame, or inadequacy, or feeling inferior, and so they're overcompensating by being incredibly controlling and forceful, and using anger as a tool to express that. Now, I will say that if this type of anger is showing up in your client, especially on a regular basis, this is likely one case where you will want to consider referring this client to a therapist. And of course, that conversation will need to be handled very delicately. But when we start talking about aggressive anger and the use of anger to control or manipulate other people, then I do think we may be getting outside of the realm of coaching, and more in the realm of where a mental health therapist would be a better provider for this individual. 

The fourth and final type of anger I want to talk about is what I've seen referred to as justifiable Anger. And in fact, there's an article on Psychology Today written by Preston Ni, and he describes anger that's justifiable as being a sense of moral outrage at the injustices of the world. And I would say many of us are witnessing and experiencing justifiable anger right now, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain and Ahmad Arbery and so many other countless other black people who have been killed at the hands of police. This is justifiable anger according to Preston Ni, because it is anchored in a sense of moral outrage that on some level, our morality has been violated, and so the anger we're experiencing is a direct result of that. 

And what he suggests is that, while anger over time can truly be a destructive process, it can kind of eat away at us, in the case of justifiable anger, it can also be channeled into creating change and into taking intentional action to get to the root of the issue and ensure that those types of moral injuries do not happen again. I think that's exactly what we're seeing right now with the protests and with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I also think that there's an interesting relationship between justifiable anger and aggressive anger that third type I talked about. 

I think we could make the argument that over the last four centuries, the dominant white culture has used aggressive anger to marginalize and oppress black and brown people. And that has led to justifiable anger amongst black and brown people, which was then channeled into action through the civil rights movement. And what I think we're seeing today is an expansion of that justifiable anger so that those of us like me, who are white and who have benefited from our whiteness, are truly understanding the power imbalance and wanting to correct that as well. So we're seeing a level of justifiable anger among white people as well. And now it's time for white people to figure out how we can harness that anger and also harness our white privilege to support black and brown people and racial justice. 

So I hope looking at anger through the lens of those four types, frustration, anger, explosive outbursts, aggressive anger and justifiable anger has been helpful. I want to spend just a minute or two talking about whether anger is a primary or a secondary emotion because this is something that I remember learning about 20 years ago when I was in graduate school, and it's something that I still see in books and research today, this idea that anger is not a primary emotion, it doesn't stand on its own. It's a secondary emotion because it's often tied to a deeper emotion like fear, sadness, or shame. 

And I'll be honest with you, because I was taught this, that's exactly what I used to say when I would run anger management groups, or when I would work with individual therapy clients. I would often say anger is a secondary emotion, let's get to the root of it. 

I'm not sure I subscribe to that belief anymore, or maybe what I should say is that I don't think it's particularly helpful to talk about anger as a secondary emotion. Because I think when we do that, it minimizes the legitimacy of having that anger emotion. 

I remember when I would conduct anger management workshops when I was working for the Air Force, and I would talk about anger and I would frame it as a secondary emotion. And that actually created more anger in many of the men and women I was working with, because they felt like I wasn't really hearing them, I wasn't honoring their anger. And I was trying to write it off by finding another reason for it. 

And that was kind of an aha moment for me, because this whole idea of calling anger a secondary emotion, I think goes against what we want to do as coaches, which is create that space for our clients where they feel safe to talk about what they're experiencing, and then we normalize their emotional response. So rather than talk about anger as being a secondary emotion, I prefer to talk about anger as being a tandem emotion. So anger is often in tandem with another emotion, whether that's fear or sadness or shame, but by describing it as a tandem emotion, we don't infuse any sort of hierarchy into how we're viewing or working with that emotion. Being angry is a perfectly valid, understandable emotional response in and of itself, and it may also be joined by another emotion that we can explore. 

So I just wanted to share my perspective about that with you because again, if you are doing any sort of reading or research about anger, you are likely to hear this secondary emotion description of it. And I'm going to challenge you to think about it being a tandem emotion and how framing it in that way might serve our clients better and allow for greater connection and emotional exploration. 

All right, I think we've done a pretty thorough deep dive on anger and now it's time to talk about the steps we as coaches can take when we are working with clients who are experiencing anger. Now before we even get into that, I do want to remind you how important it is to balance your coaching work with your own personal safety. And when we're dealing with clients who are angry, sometimes that emotional response can go too far, and we as the coach may feel as if we are in an unsafe position. 

So I want to encourage you to always be aware of your surroundings when you are working with a client who is expressing anger, I want you to literally have an exit strategy. So when I was doing a lot of anger management counseling, I made sure that I had a direct path to the door so that if I needed to get out of the room, I could do so and I was not obstructed by a desk or by the client. So you may want to think about the layout of the space in which you're meeting with your client to ensure that you have clear egress to another space. 

And then finally, I want to encourage you to trust your gut. So often, many of us, especially women, will get a sense that something isn't right or that something feels unsafe, and we don't listen to that because we don't want to be rude, we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. and we're conditioned to not pay attention to that voice. I'm going to ask you to really tune into your gut, and if you are in a situation with a client where it feels unsafe, or where it feels like that anger could escalate to the point where you or the client could be in a position of harm, honor that and take steps accordingly to maintain your safety and your clients safety as well. 

Okay, so step one, when you are working with a client who is experiencing or exhibiting anger is first, you as the coach, want to detach yourself from the client's anger. This is where we need to remind ourselves, that it's not about us. Even when the anger may be directed at us, even when we feel like the target, the anger is a reflection of the client's emotional experience, and it is separate from us. 

Now, for those of you who identify as being highly sensitive, or empathic, this is a particularly important step for you to take to remind yourself that you can be in the presence of another person's anger, they can exhibit that anger, some of that anger may even be directed at you, and you can still detach from it and not buy into the client's anger story. Instead, you can partner with them to work through it and that's what these next steps are about. 

But first we have to come from a place of new neutrality and objectivity and understand that the anger is the clients, it's not ours. We do that by creating a holding space for the anger, we give permission for it to exist, and we frame it as not being a bad thing, or as being something we should avoid, but rather is something that serves a purpose. 

But before we talk about the purpose of anger, we need to move into step two, which is giving the client the full opportunity to express his or her anger. And this is where we use our tools of confirming and affirming. I talked a lot about that in last week's episode about sadness that one of the most powerful things that we can do for a client is confirm that they are being heard, so we're using reflective listening strategies to ensure that we are receiving the message that they're sending and we're demonstrating that we understand it. That's the confirmation process. And then we affirm our clients experience, we are letting them know that it is completely understandable why they would be feeling angry, given everything that they've experienced in this particular moment and throughout their life, it makes perfect sense that anger would be coming up for them. 

So we are not fighting against the anger. We are not asking them to justify their anger. We are simply creating space for it to be and we are providing the affirmation that yes, it makes sense that you are angry and you are allowed to be angry. It's important as coaches we do this, even if we disagree with the client, even if they are angry about something that we don't understand or that we strongly disagree with. At this point, the goal is simply to have the client work through some of the emotional feelings behind the anger once they feel fully heard, and fully affirmed. 

Then we move into step three, which is helping the client return to a physiological baseline, if that's necessary. Now, not every client will need this, some clients will be able to express their anger and then once it's out, they feel better and we can move on. But because anger does have a physiological response, we do want to make sure that we are guiding our clients back to a baseline. So we can do this by checking in with them, asking them to notice where they are feeling anger in their body, where it's arising for them, and then, if we are trained to do so we can then guide them through a process to help them return to a calmer state. 

We can do this through centering through breathing exercises through mindfulness practice, but again, we want to help the client return to a baseline state because when they are physiologically aroused, it is difficult for them to take the next step, which is to find the deeper meaning in their anger. So step three is to bring them back to a physiological baseline. 

And step four is then to help them identify the deeper meaning or the purpose in their anger. One thing I've noticed, with myself and with my clients, is that when anger comes up, it often suggests that a value is being threatened. And that value tends to be around justice, or fairness or equity. So someone feels as if they're being treated unfairly, or that they've been wronged, and so the anger says, “a button has been pushed here and we need to identify the value behind that button.” 

So then we can talk to our clients and ask them what's really going on here. Why is this so important to you? What value is being challenged? It may also be helpful to explore any sort of old thought patterns or habits that are coming up here as well. So is this a learned response that the client is having? Are there other emotions present that are complicating things? And what thoughts or thought patterns are emerging out of this anger? 

So a lot of times we can help the client see the underlying assumptions that may be behind the anger, or if there's any sort of overgeneralizing, any blaming, if there's mind reading, for example, that person should know better or that person should know what I need. So when we can help our clients identify any sort of cognitive errors or cognitive distortions that may be playing into the anger, that can also help the client connect to what's really going on here and what can be learned from the anger. 

But again, this is not a step we want to rush into. We only explore the deeper meaning and purpose of the anger once the client feels fully affirmed, and it's safe for them to move forward from an emotional state and a physiological state as well. 

Once the client has a sense of the reason or purpose for the anger, then we can invite them into step five, which is to create a choice point. This is where we can ask the client, “Now that we have a full understanding of what's going on here, what action do you want to take?” This puts the client back in the position of having a sense of agency over their life, and they can make the decision as to what is the next best step, and they can do so because they are now coming from a place where they are responding to their anger and not reacting to it. So reaction feels very automatic and there's no choice or control in it. Now we're at a point where they can regain that sense of Control and they can choose their response and how they want to move forward. 

So we've just walked through the five steps I use when I am coaching my clients through anger. Step number one is to first detach myself from the client's anger, and remind myself that this is the client's emotion, not mine. Number two is to give the client full opportunity to express his or her anger, and to confirm and affirm it at every step of the way. Number three, if needed, is to help the client return to their physiological baseline so that they are approaching our work from a place of calm. Step four is to partner with the client to help them find the deeper meaning behind their anger and, specifically, what value may have been threatened. And then the final step is to work with the client and help them create a choice point or an action plan, now that they understand how they can use this anger and channel it into change. 

So, now that we've covered all of those five steps, I think it's time for this week's Clarity in Action moment. This week's Clarity in Action moment is very similar to last week's. As you might recall, I do not ask my clients to do any sort of work that I'm not willing to do myself or that I haven't already done. Certainly that’s the case in terms of exploring sadness, and it's absolutely the case in exploring our own anger. 

So your Clarity In Action moment this week is to do your own anger work. You may be experiencing anger at what's going on in the world today, or you may have some residual anger over something that's happened to you in the past. I'm going to encourage you to take some time to consider how anger is showing up in your life right now. how comfortable you are. expressing it, and what it may be pointing to what values could be jeopardized or threatened or compromised, that your anger might be pointing to. 

Another question I often ask myself and my clients is, “What does your anger want you to know or do?” So again, last week, we looked at taking sadness and creating it almost as a separate entity that we could talk to and talk about, and we can do that with anger as well. So if I were to pull your anger out of you, and look at it as if it were a separate being and have a conversation with it, what would it want us to know? What does your anger want you to know? And how does it want to serve you? 

From there, you will be in a position to be super clear on the values behind that anger. And then you'll be at a point where you can decide what action if any needs to have happen. So I'm going to ask you to do this type of self-coaching around anger, because again, not only will it be good for you personally, but it will give you some insight as to what this process feels like as you are asking your own clients to go through it. 

Alright, my friends, we have covered a lot today and I recognize that talking about difficult or unwanted emotions can be tough. So I am definitely going to encourage you to take some time for yourself today, do some restorative work, get a little self care in there, because we do need to be taking very good care of ourselves as we are doing this deep coaching work with our clients. 

I also find it so helpful to turn to my community of coaches and colleagues when I am working through difficult emotions either with myself or with one of my clients. And if you would like some support in that, then I again invite you to check out the Coach with Clarity membership Because you don't have to do this alone. Just head to https://www.coachwithclarity.com/membership to learn more. 

I'd love to know more about what this episode brought up for you and you are welcome to reach out to me. You can find me on Instagram at Coach with Clarity. And you can also find me in the Coach with Clarity community just had to https://www.coachwithclarity.com/facebookgroup and request to join. 

Alright my friend. That brings us to the end of this week's episode of the Coach with Clarity podcast. Again, it's my honor to show up and connect with you in this way every week. Thank you for the gift of your time and I look forward to connecting with you about this in future episodes. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough and I am reminding you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity.

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