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Telling colleague off silently may not be so harmless

Festering in a cycle of anger can produce more bad thoughts that then create more anger

Bill Seybolt, a system administrator, was recently helping one of his colleagues with a technical problem when another colleague issued a drive-by insult, putting down the planned upgrade to a new program.

"It really pierced me," Seybolt says. Before responding, he decided he'd give himself the night to sleep on it. But later he couldn't sleep, coming back to the conversation. "It's like taking a shot of espresso," he says.

The conversation kept playing through his mind when he was walking his Beagle mix, Millie. "If you were here right now you know what I would tell you?" he told his foe in his head. Ultimately, his boss "talked me off the ledge," he says, and he dropped the issue.

At work there are countless things you should and could and would have said. But the tormenting fact is, you didn't. So, hemmed in by forces such as the fragility of reputations, your dependence on a paycheck, or even just slow-footedness, you re-enact one of the countless little workplace defeats in the confines of your head. Maybe if you think about all that conversation's permutations, you can right all the little workplace wrongs — and then bend spoons with your mental powers.

The process of chewing over old conversations is referred in psychology circles as rumination. It's prevalent enough in the office that various leadership-training programs administer personality tests asking how often you "replay an incident over and over" in your mind.

The idea is to probe whether someone is predisposed to festering in a cycle of anger that produces more bad thoughts that then create more anger, says Craig Runde, director of new program development at Eckerd College Leadership Development Institute, St. Petersburg, Fla. Ruminating too much, he says, "keeps you stuck."

That explains, says Runde, why some festerers can't concentrate on the task at hand, drip sarcasm and fly off the handle at the first mention of something that only to them sounds like the umpteenth time.

Usually, it's when Gary Hauk, a university vice president, is in the shower or running that he spots a slight from a colleague that went over his head at the time of delivery. A few weeks ago, the self-described grand master of the "too-late retort" showed up to a roundtable discussion with an umbrella in hand due to the threat of rain. "OK, Neville," his colleague said, referring to the former U.K. Prime Minister Chamberlain, "why don't you put that umbrella down and take a seat."

"It hit me five hours later that was a subtle dig," says Hauk. Or was it? "I get in the conundrum of trying to understand whether I should be angry with him," says Hauk.

So he begins rescripting the conversation. He would have retorted with the Freudian reference to a cigar: "Sometimes an umbrella is just an umbrella." It would have been delivered in a playful way so his colleague could either take it as a joke or take offense.

"Every time I shoot off one of these zingers, I'm keeping someone awake at night," he imagines. (One can only hope.)

There is hope for the ruminator. In studies of Buddhist monks, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, found that activity in areas of the brain associated with self-focused rumination decreased among adept meditation practitioners. The findings suggest that mental training can alter our propensity to second-guess ourselves.

Cognitive tasks can distract us from ourselves. "That's why people do crossword puzzles and sudoku," says Davidson.

Mercifully, you can also bore yourself out of it. "It's also possible that you become habituated to your own rumination," he says, "and after a while it no longer has the same command it once did."

Still, the odds are more favorable of winning arguments with people who aren't there. Graig Stettner manages money for clients. He has to divine the future. His clients, on the other hand, get to judge his decisions with the benefit of hindsight. One client second-guesses him so regularly that he and a colleague have dubbed him, "Captain Hindsight." So, Stettner replays what he would have said to better defend himself against Captain Hindsight's considerable powers to see into the recent past.

"We apply hindsight in our conversation about their hindsight," he says.

The replays have happier endings. "Naturally, the conversations end with my client's feeble arguments being reduced to nothing," he says. "I would just as soon vanquish them in my mind," he says.

Advertising executive Susan Credle gets caught by her personal trainer redramatizing conversations with colleagues. She doesn't see the point of actually talking about it. She has already imagined all the possible responses and advice, she says.

Sometimes interactions that Credle hasn't really had yet do get tired. Recently, she was talking to her boss about an unpleasant chat she might need to have with one of her staffers. He suggested she go talk to the person.

She says: "I thought, gosh, I've already had that conversation."