A woman seated on the edge of her desk with stickie notes that say, "Shhh!" on the wall behind her.

It was 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday. I woke up early to join an attorney on a call with the CEO of a young, niche consulting group. Then, it happened.

An hour into our brainstorm, the CEO snapped. He shouted, stood to his feet holding his laptop and said my suggestions were offending him and that I knew nothing. He swore. He shouted about wholly unrelated topics. The video call kept recording.

I woke up early on a Saturday to join a call for a side job for which I’m a contract employee. I found time outside of my already full-time job to engage in their projects because I believed in their mission.

Why would I have been on the call unless the CEO had invited me? Why would I be on the call unless I sincerely cared and was credible?

What was it about me that made this CEO think he could shout? Did I look or present to be too young? Was it because I’m a woman? Was it because I don’t have the “credibility” of having bought a home or had children? What gave him the impression that he, a 50-something, married-with-kids man, could swear at me in front of my attorney friend and on a recorded line?

What gave him the impression that he, a 50-something, married-with-kids man, could swear at me?

When faced with an uncalled-for outburst, we ask ourselves a lot of rhetorical questions. While we may never get answers, we can prepare to skillfully respond in the moment as well as after the incident has passed.

Here’s how to deal and respond when you are yelled at on the job:

In the moment, halt the behavior.

Attempting to address all the topics an angry person is throwing at you is neither possible nor productive. They are too angry for sincere, safe dialogue.

In the moment, consider saying, “The way you are speaking to me is crossing professionally acceptable lines of respectful communication. The topics you’d like to discuss merit sincere conversation. Unfortunately, that won’t be possible right now given your level of frustration. Let’s put a pin in this conversation and schedule a different time when we can come back with clearer heads.”

After the event, reset expectations.

Following an outburst, schedule a time to talk once parties have calmed down and reflected. Outbursts should never go unaddressed. Rather, they should be revisited with gentleness and conviction. If you have a Human Resources representative, then consider including them.

Outbursts should never go unaddressed.

Start by affirming that you have thought about what they said and how they said it. Suggest that you need a new set of shared expectations of behavior and of the project itself. Explain that, to successfully set expectations, they must be reasonable, stated out loud and agreed upon by both parties.

Share what the other person can expect of you such as, “You can expect that if I have an issue with you, then I’ll come to you first. I will speak politely to you and about you. Can I expect the same of you?”

By yourself, choose forgiveness over offense.

After experiencing unacceptable behavior, the hardest part is choosing forgiveness over offense. Offense is quick to rise up. Who does he think he is? He can’t treat me that way. Does he have any idea who I am?

Offense hardens us and locks us up. Forgiveness molds us and frees us up. It’s impossible to forget that an incident happened, but it is possible to not let it hold us captive. For me, I know I’ve forgiven when my heart, and sometimes even my mouth, can say, “I deserved better, but you do not owe me anymore.” With forgiveness, what has hurt us can shape us into more beautiful people.

Offense hardens us and locks us up. Forgiveness molds us and frees us up.

Being the recipient of an uncalled-for outburst is a deeply hurtful experience. Sometimes, working relationships will need to end, and sometimes, they can be revived in a stronger direction. As women, instead of asking, “Why me?” questions, let’s be prepared to handle crucial conversations with dignity and self-possession. We are able and worth it.

Have you ever been humiliated at work by a superior? How did you handle it? How would you handle it differently if you could?

Image via Sky Yim, Darling Issue No. 11

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