Commentary
An Exercise in Anger Management


By Capt. Bob Hill (America West)
Air Line Pilot, April 2003, p. 6

On a flight recently, my copilot and I had a conversation about how best to handle awkward situations that arise on the line. Our airline seems to have had a rash of incidents in which the pilot was totally in the right but because of the way the pilot addressed the shortcoming, that pilot found himself having to answer to the chief pilot. My first officer suggested that the best advice that he had received on the issue was from his father, who had counseled him to make sure that he was "right but not wrong." This seems to be a paradox of terms, and yet the advice is very well taken.

The "wrong" aspect involves anger and the way in which we address that anger. Anger is a natural reaction to events that we perceive as threats, whether they are internal or external. In dealing with that threat, our autonomic nervous systems go on heightened alert as a defensive mechanism. This response might be appropriate when dealing with a dangerous beast, but when dealing with a scheduler, we face an entirely different animal.

The instinctive reaction to anger is to respond aggressively, but obviously we canít physically lash out at the myriad of individuals who we deal with in the course of our jobs.

The question then becomes, How do we deal with our anger and the autonomic responses? The American Psychology Association offers an excellent pamphlet titled Controlling AngeróBefore It Controls You. The brochure states, "The goal of anger management is to reduce both your emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that anger causes. You canít get rid of, or avoid, the things or the people who enrage you, nor can you change them, but you can learn to control your reactions."

The pamphlet mentions three primary ways in which persons can deal with their anger:

ē A person can attempt to suppress the anger and keep it inside. This option is not recommended because suppressing anger may subject the person to hypertension, to the possibility of depression, and to inappropriate pathological behaviors.

ē The second option is to consciously try to calm down, not only to control oneís outside behavior, but also to lower the heart rate and autonomous responses.

ē The third option is the most desirable and healthiest way in which to express oneís anger. This is to express oneís feelings in an assertive, non-threatening, and non-aggressive manner. The intent should be to clearly communicate your needs and the desired result without being pushy or demanding, in a manner that is respectful and considerate of both yourself and others.

At this point, you may be saying, "Dream on," for in the course of our daily activities we are constantly confronted with situations that have the potential for arousing anger. At America West, anger has become almost endemic as we have had to deal with the shortcomings created by a management whose mantra was bottom-line cost control rather than quality of product.

Systemic problems over which we have little or no control constantly thwart those of us who desire to excel in our chosen profession. When we bring those issues up with our superiors, they take very little corrective action. We cannot escape this environment but must deal with it as best as we can.

The APA pamphlet addresses our circumstance through what it calls "Cognitive Restructuring." It says, "Simply put, this means changing the way you think." In essence, it encourages one to avoid overly exaggerated and excessively dramatic forms of speech and body movements. Avoid using absolute terms such as "never" and "always." Resist the temptation to overplay the seriousness of the situation; for in reality it is not the end of the world, and getting angry is not going to fix the problem or make you feel better.

The pamphlet goes on to say, "Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when itís justified, can quickly become irrational. So use cold, hard logic on yourself. Remind yourself that the world is not out to get you (even if you know that it really is), youíre just experiencing some of the rough spots of daily life."

One might ask if "letting it all hang out" is good. According to the APA brochure, this is a dangerous myth. Releasing the full fury of your anger is not likely to resolve the situation, but will likely have the opposite result.

Lastly it suggests, "Remember, you canít eliminate angeróand it wouldnít be a good idea if you could. In spite of all your efforts, things will happen that will cause you anger; and sometimes it will be justifiable anger. Life will be filled with frustration, pain, loss, and the unpredictable actions of others. You canít change that; but you can change the way you let such events affect you."

So the next time you are dealing with a situation that should have been corrected at the dawn of time, the next time your rights under the contract are being violated, the next time someone potentially places you and your passengers in harmís way, "Be right, but donít be wrong."

The American Psychological Association brochure, Controlling AngeróBefore It Controls You, may be found at the APAís website, www.apa.org.

This article is reprinted with permission from America West Council 62ís A Line in the Sand, November/December 2002.