@Work Advice: How to handle screamers

Photograph by Deb Lindsey

Reader: I am a mid-20s female in communications — editing, proofreading, writing, layout and design. I’ve been successful thus far (raises, promotions) but keep running into one issue: communication. When I worked in a publishing house, editors would yell at me if books were not on schedule, but often those issues were due to the authors, not me. I tried to communicate calmly, but this rarely helped.

Now I am a contractor doing similar work, and I have communication issues with those outside my team. One contractor yelled at me over the phone about an issue he could not even articulate; though I tried to find out, he continued yelling until I finally hung up. I have never done this before!

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I am embarrassed that I am in communications but have issues with communication. Also, I have rather severe anxiety; though I have been able to manage it, I fear for my health if I continue to go through needlessly stressful situations. My direct supervisors tell me to ignore the issues and assure me I am performing well. How do I continue performing well when I feel like someone is going to scream at me for no reason every day?

Karla: I wouldn’t say you have a problem with communication. I’d say you have a problem with being screamed at.

I also wouldn’t say people are screaming “for no reason.” The reason they’re screaming is that they’ve lost control. There is no communicating with someone who has lost control. There’s only coping, for which you have two options: engage or detach.

In general, engage with someone who wants answers: “I realize the delays are frustrating. Let me [outline steps to take or people to contact], and I will get back to you by [X] o’clock with an update.” Brief, all business.

When someone is twirled up to the point of incoherence, detach. If you can tune out the howling, wait until it dies down and then engage. If that’s impossible, detach fully: “I can’t help you if you’re going to yell. Why don’t we try again in half an hour.” Click.

Keep these points in mind: The yellers are outsiders, and your bosses gave you permission to not take them too seriously. Their yelling says no more about your abilities than a toddler’s tantrum would.

But don’t be afraid to ask for help from a third party, whether it’s treatment for any chronic anxiety or occasional intervention by your bosses. While I believe we all — particularly young women — should learn to stand up for ourselves, there are some conditions no one is paid enough
to endure.

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com. You can also find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook.

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