Understanding the Rage

by Kitty Porterfield and Meg Carnes

No one likes to listen to complaints, to sit still while someone dumps a load of rage on your desk. It helps to understand why people get angry. Understanding also may help to shape the solution. According to those who study human behavior, there are some fundamental reasons why we get angry.

We get angry because we have been hurt or because our children have been hurt. This hurt can be physical or emotional. Your son gets decked in a playground fight or your daughter is the subject of continuing ridicule by a teacher or another student. Your inquiries, as a parent, have been repeatedly ignored by your child’s teacher. Those situations make us angry.

We get angry when we are afraid we will be hurt in the future. Ever get up the morning you have a dentist appointment and yell at your kids? You aren’t angry at them, but your anxiety over the pain your dentist might inflict spills over. Parents get angry about their child’s kindergarten teacher selection if they are already afraid their child might not get into Harvard.

We get angry when our fundamental values or beliefs are threatened. In every school it’s likely that someone’s values and beliefs are threatened every day. As our communities grow increasingly diverse, we must become more and more sensitive to cultures and religious practices that are different from our own, to others’ sense of personal space, and to our own use of language. We have no idea how often we offend without meaning to.

We get angry when we believe we have been ignored or lied to or treated unfairly. The people who can attest to this most vividly are the administrative assistants who answer the phones in our organization. The higher you go in the organization, the more layers there are to the stories they hear. By the time a complainant reaches the superintendent or a school board member, not only is the parent or citizen complaining about the original insult but also about the multiple attempts to discuss the problem that were met with silence, or worse, down the line. With time and repeated rebuffs, the “Johnny did not get into the gifted program” becomes “this whole school system is a disaster.”

Constructive Clues
The needs of our stakeholders can be placed in one of three buckets. In our interactions with each other, we all need security, esteem and justice.

Security. In any relationship, parents want to feel secure, and they want to be sure their children are secure. They don’t expect to be physically assaulted inside a school, and they also don’t want to be verbally or emotionally assaulted in their dealings with school personnel.

Esteem. Beyond feeling secure, parents and our colleagues also want to be respected. Parents feel intimidated by the “professional” (and perhaps arrogant) attitude educators sometimes adopt. Parents want to feel their opinions are given weight in the process of building solutions. Colleagues too are put off when someone from another department or building knows it all!

Justice. Finally, our stakeholders are looking for justice. Usually, we can accept a solution we don’t like if it applies equally to everyone. When other people or children seem to be getting special treatment, temperatures rise and tempers flare. “That’s just not fair,” we say.

These three buckets match up pretty well with the things that make us angry. They give us clues to building constructive conversations with angry parents. Write those three words — security, esteem, justice — on a piece of paper and tape it to your phone. When you are listening to a complaining parent or employee, focus on which one best describes the complaint you are hearing.

When it is your turn to talk, don’t start addressing the problem, start with an acknowledgment of your understanding of the parent/employee need:

•  “It sounds to me, Mrs. Quinn, as if you don’t feel Suzanne is safe.” 

•  “What you are telling me is that you believe the principal is not listening to what you have to say.” 

•  “Mr. Andretti, you seem to feel your son is not being treated fairly by the coach.”

Almost without fail, you will find those simple statements take much of the heat out of the conversation and give you and the complainant some breathing room in which to find a solution.