Don’t yell at me.

I looked at the retired colonel in surprise. I hadn’t raised my voice.

Had I?

No. But there’s more than one way to yell. Tone and intensity work almost as well as volume.

As one of those touchy-feely types said to me later over dinner, “Yeah, you yelled at him. Next time, think about what’s happening inside.” I don’t think I rolled my eyes. What’s happening inside, indeed.

But the good news was I didn’t really have to think about what was happening inside: I already knew. A person in a position of authority – not my boss boss but my project boss – had asked me for something I couldn’t do. Not in the time we had.

He was in charge and he wanted something from me and the team that was patently unreasonable. Rather than explain that, calmly, reasonably, persuasively — as would befit someone with my years of experience in this work — I yelled. Rather than search for a creative and feasible solution that would address his concerns and yet give me some time to sleep in the next week, I shut him down. Hard. I yelled. Because I was afraid.

Afraid of not performing to his expectation, however unreasonable? Afraid of not convincing him of my point of view? Afraid of just saying, “No”? Afraid of feeling forced into trying to do what he’d asked, and hang the expense to me and to the team?

Damn the torpedoes: Full speed ahead.

Yes, all of that.

What made me think of that long-ago interaction? A recent Seth blog, of course.

A “Deer Xing” sign isn’t there to tell the deer where to cross the road.

It’s there to let drivers know that this is the spot
where deer often choose to cross the road.

A good signmaker is aware of “who it’s for” and “what it’s for.”
In this case, the hope is that drivers will be more careful.

Too often, signs of all kinds (metaphorical signs, not just physical ones),
about how the signmaker is frustrated about something they can’t control.

If you can’t influence something, why are you yelling about it?

I know why I’m usually yelling: I’m afraid. And the volume of my yelling is directly proportional to my feeling of helplessness.

When each side of the American partisan divide apparently thinks the country would be better off if those other people died – yes, diedI’m thinking they’re afraid, too.

Afraid of having to modify their thinking, even a little bit? Afraid of being flat-out wrong? Afraid of having to admit they’re wrong? Afraid of having to admit that they don’t have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Afraid of having to live with ambiguity and irreconcilable differences in important matters? Afraid of having to accept that good people with the same information can come to radically different conclusions? Afraid of having to change?

Yes, all of that.

When I’m yelling, I know what’s happening inside.

When a country is yelling, I’m guessing the same thing is happening.


Check out Pierce Godwin and his #ListenFirst project. Their tagline?

Courage over contempt.

I’m thinking Mr. Godwin understands about being afraid. About how it leads to yelling. And about how taking action helps us feel less powerless.

This entry was posted in Day-to-Day Encounters, Feeling Clearly, Language and Communication, Management and Work, Thinking Broadly and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Why We YELL

  1. Tom Watson says:


  2. Eric J Hrycyk says:

    Know your audience and knowing what you want to achieve. When the flames appear it’s best to YELL fire. When someone is yelling at you it’s best to whisper. Lessons learned in my previous life when at times good grammar and diction were important and at other times profanity was necessary to achieve one’s goal.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Eric – 🙂 Good points. My problem was in not acting intentionally – I was an Accidental/Inadvertent Yeller. (Not an old Yeller, or not then.)

  3. So true. My brave sister seemed to be sailing through an arduous day of blood tests, a franker conversation and the first face-to-face with her oncologist in which she affirmed her systemic treatment but with amelioration, the insertion of a PICC line, and some necessary shopping. I was blind to how stressful for her all of this had been until we arrived in her driveway and I asked her what favourite foods I should stock for her and she screamed at me that she didn’t care if she died first of starvation. This driver needs to be more careful of the dear.

    And I agree that individuals in the aggregate behave much like solo individuals.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – In this case, being yelled at is a compliment, I think – an expression of the safety she feels in your relationship. I’m sorry she’s going through all that – and you, too.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    I beg to differ (Gently. I’m NOT YELLING!). Some years back, British author Mark Gibbs wrote a book in which he argued that until we actually yell at each other, we’re not really listening to each other. That sounded impolite, and then I noticed that when Joan and I disagreed, and remained civil to each other, we were actually NOT dealing with the issue; we were just sweeping it under the carpet, for the time being. We didn’t realize how much this issue mattered to the other partner until one of us broke the polite barrier and yelled. Or otherwise demonstrated a willingness to fight for her/my viewpoint.

    Not that yelling should be a first choice for dealing with disagreement. But let’s not exclude it as a vehicle for attaining agreement.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Intimate relationships and friendships are in another category, perhaps, from work ones. Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there should likely be no yelling in business. But I hear you – it can be a necessary step to being heard (by others and by ourselves).

  5. Lorna Shapiro says:

    Great blog post Isabel. Good reminder for me of how often FEAR is at the root of one of my unhelpful character traits… the trick for me has been in learning to be self aware enough to recognize that fear is likely at work, and to identify what that fear is.. and then to remember that I learned that!

  6. barbara carlson says:

    It doesn’t help that FEAR is stoked by the media.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – No, maybe not. The fears that bushwhack me are the ones I don’t know about.

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