Stress at work

5 ways to deal with a boss who yells

October 31, 2013: 10:56 AM ET

Some people react to stress by shouting at colleagues. If you work for someone like that, here's how to lower the volume.

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FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: My mom sent me your column about working for a manager who blames everybody else for his mistakes, but I have a somewhat different problem. I started a new job in August, and for the most part I really like it here. The thing is, I report to someone who yells when he's under pressure (which is most of the time). He's not being abusive or insulting, he's just extremely emotional and loud.

I'm not used to this, and it leaves me dumbstruck. I can't concentrate well enough to answer intelligently when someone is hollering at me. The only other person who reports to this manager, and who has been here a long time, responds by saying, "Call me when you've calmed down and we'll talk," and then leaves the room. I don't quite have the nerve to do that, and I don't want to yell back, so can you suggest some other ways to handle this? -- Quieter, Please

Dear Q.P.: It seems your colleague is onto something. In any negotiation -- and make no mistake, this situation qualifies as one -- the person who is ready to walk away, even if only for the moment, holds most of the power. "The least effective thing you can do is fight emotion with emotion by yelling back at someone who's yelling at you," says Steven P. Cohen. "If one party is emotional and the other stays calm, the unemotional one has far more leverage." The trick is learning how to use it.

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Cohen is president of a consulting firm called The Negotiating Skills Company and author of a new book, The Practical Negotiator: How to Argue Your Point, Plead Your Case, and Prevail in Any Situation. He notes that, while some people use yelling as a deliberate strategy to intimidate others, your boss sounds more like "someone who's out of control and needs help learning how to cope with stress.

"He may also be dealing with personal problems, outside the office, that affect his behavior at work. But it's not your job to be his therapist" -- so, if you're ever tempted to go there, don't.

Instead, Cohen recommends you try one or more of these tactics:

1. Say nothing. "Sitting there with a poker face or a quizzical expression, in absolute silence, is sometimes a good way to communicate that what someone just said -- or, in this case, how loudly he said it -- is offensive to you," Cohen notes. Wait until he runs out of steam and stops shouting before you continue the discussion.

2. Calmly explain why his yelling bothers you. If you feel you have to speak, you could say something like, "When someone yells at me like this, it's very hard for me to concentrate. I feel as if we're really not communicating." There's an outside chance that pointing out the problem will embarrass him into lowering his voice, but even if not, having expressed what you're thinking will make you feel less like a deer in his headlights.

3. Talk very softly. An approach that Cohen has often seen work is to "talk in a very soft voice, slowly," he says. "Make him listen to you, even to the point where he asks you to speak a little louder." This can be effective for two reasons. First, it distracts the yeller from whatever is stressing him out and shifts his attention to the content of the discussion, where it belongs; and, second, the glaring contrast between your voice and his might cause him to talk to you more quietly.

4. Restate what he's yelling about. Sometimes yellers calm down when it's clear you've understood the point they're trying to make, Cohen says. So try repeating back to him what he just shouted, but in your own words: "If I understand you correctly, you're saying we need to ... " "If you can get past your gut reaction to being yelled at and listen to the substance of what your boss is saying, he may be revealing important information," Cohen notes. If so, showing that you've heard it might help reduce the volume.

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5. Prepare a solution ahead of time. If you know in advance that something has happened that's likely to set him off, "don't go into a meeting unprepared. Come up with some ideas about how to address whatever the issue is -- ideally, some creative, surprising ones," says Cohen. "A surprise often throws a yeller off-kilter and makes him stop and consider an approach that may not have occurred to him." Again, when you present these, speak softly. After a while, he may take the hint.

All that said, Cohen wonders if maybe, when you've been in this job for longer than two months, you'll become as blasé about the noise as your more seasoned colleague is. "If you know this is just the way this person reacts to stress, and it doesn't mean anything, why let it bother you?" he says. "Remind yourself that losing control and shouting at people detracts from his professional credibility, not yours." True.

Talkback: Have you ever worked for, or with, someone who yelled all the time? How did you handle it? Leave a comment below.

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