• Are you often angry?
  • Do you frequently overreact?
  • Do you take your anger out on someone other than the person you’re angry with?
  • Do you hold grudges, pout, or sulk?
  • Do you stay angry for a long time?
  • Are you scared of your anger?
  • Are other people scared of your anger?
  • Does your anger negatively affect the people you live or work with?
  • Do you ever get violent when you’re angry?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you may have a problem with anger. And anger may be keeping you from communicating effectively.

Anger is one of the most primal and complex feelings in the range of human emotions. Although it is neither good nor bad, its misuse causes a great deal of suffering:

  • Undermining trust, loyalty, and teamwork
  • Destroying relationships
  • Creating a hostile environment
  • Lowering productivity
  • Contributing to health problems
  • Incurring legal expenses
  • Contributing to violence

The problem with anger, as Aristotle observed over 2,500 year ago, is this: “Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — this is not easy.”

Anger does three things.

  1. It alerts us to a problem. It’s like a siren, warning us of a threat to our safety or to the safety of those we care for.
  2. It focuses our attention. When we’re angry, we have trouble thinking about anything else.
  3. It gives us energy. Anger floods the bloodstream with chemicals that turbocharge the body and prepare it to take action.

Here’s an example of anger in action. A department store floor manager, late for a meeting and thinking about 10 different problems, overhears an associate call a customer a “fat cow.” She stops dead in her tracks. For the moment she forgets everything else. She steps in to deal with the customer and the employee.

Since each person’s response to anger is unique, you have become an expert about your anger pattern.

Hot Buttons

We all have different Hot Buttons, things that trigger a strong emotional reaction in us — people’s attitudes or actions, events, situations, etc.

They strike us as unfair, unjust, or just plain wrong. And they irritate, annoy, vex, anger, or enrage us.

Not everybody is bothered by the same thing that bothers us, and sometimes even that realization bothers us.

There are three steps to dealing with our hot buttons: 1. Observe. 2. Analyze. 3. Change.


The first step in dealing with our hot buttons is to become aware of them — without judgment or shame.

  • What type of incident, situation, or person typically “pushes your buttons?”
  • What are you doing when it happens?
  • What are other people doing?
  • Where are you?
  • Who are you with?
  • How tired or stressed are you?

Do you recognize any pattern?

A pattern is something like this: “When X happens, I feel Y.”

For example:
When I’m late for an appointment and I get stuck in traffic, I get angry.
When my boss asks me to stay late, I get angry.

What’s your pattern?

For the next week pay attention to how you react internally when one of your hot buttons gets pushed.


Now that you have some awareness of what typically triggers your anger, you can analyze your pattern.

Ask yourself what you’re thinking, when you get mad. What judgments are you making?

When you’re late for an appointment and stuck in traffic, do you think you’re stupid and you should have left earlier?

Or do you think you’re helpless and wish someone would take care of the problem for you?

Or do you think it’s a conspiracy and everyone’s ganging up to make you late?

When your boss asks you to stay late, do you think she’s being unreasonable? Or do you recall every other time she’s ever imposed on you and conclude that she’s an inconsiderate person and quite possibly the most incompetent boss in the world? Or do berate yourself for not standing up for yourself?

What are you thinking?

Now, stop. Don’t judge or justify what you’re thinking. Simply admit it.

And challenge it. Challenge what you’re thinking.

Ask yourself, what evidence do I have to support my thinking? Are there other possible explanations?

Could it be that I overscheduled my day and I didn’t leave enough time to get to my next appointment?

Could it be that my boss got a last minute project dumped on her, and she’s as put out as I am?

Could it be — and this possibility is the one that’s most devastating to our ego — could it be that other people’s lives, thoughts, and actions don’t revolve around us?


Albert Ellis, a well-known psychologist, believes that most of our hot buttons are based on what he calls awfulizing. When things don’t go our way, we think, “It’s awful! It’s terrible! It’s horrible! I can’t stand it!”

He suggests we change the way we think — and talk — about our problems.

Instead of telling ourselves, “It shouldn’t be this way,” think, “I don’t like it. I wish it were different.” Taking the “should” out of it takes some of the sting out of it.

Instead of “Traffic shouldn’t be so bad at this hour,” say, “I don’t like getting stuck in traffic.”

Instead of “My boss shouldn’t dump work on me at the last minute,” say, “I don’t like it when she does.”

Instead of telling ourselves, “I can’t stand it,” think, “It bothers me a great deal. I don’t like it. I’ve survived worse things than this. I’m strong. I can do something about this.”

Instead of, “I can’t stand this traffic,” consider, “I dislike this traffic. I wish the roads were clear. But I’ve been through a lot worse than this. Maybe it’s time to put on a CD and chill out.”

Instead of, “I can’t stand it when she makes me stay late,” say, “I don’t like staying late, especially on a Friday night, but it isn’t the end of the world. I’ll have to think of some way to reward myself over the weekend.”

Recognize and accept your hot buttons. Challenge them. Change them by creating a new way of thinking about them.

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See also “How to Never Lose an Argument” and “How to Resolve Conflict.

Chris Witt, a coach based in San Diego, works with executives and with technical experts who want to improve their presentation and communication skills. If you’re interested in learning more about how you could benefit from his coaching, contact him for a complimentary call.