Anger as a Dirty Word, and Why Anger is Important for Healthy Conflict (Part II)
In my last post I talked about the cultural (including most business culture) tendency to shut down, ignore and/or punish anger when we see it in other people or ourselves. We have labeled anger as BAD, and we treat it accordingly.
But I also said in that post that we’re missing some outstanding chances to get some gold out of potential or real conflict if we’ll allow and manage anger effectively. We can do that if we understand that
1) anger is natural and NOT strange or terrible, if managed well,
2) anger is the second response of anxiety (when we can’t get away from what is making us stressed or worried or anxious), and
3) with a little communication anger can take us to new, better, healthier levels of understanding and communication with each other.
Anger as a Form of Anxiety
Socrates is quoted as saying “the unexamined life is not worth living”. I’d like to change that slightly to “the unexamined emotion is a missed opportunity.” I know, not as classy as the Great Greek Philosopher. But anger, usually dismissed or shut away, can and should instead be welcomed as an ally in turning conflict into productive work. We need to learn to enter into a dialogue with anger – either our own or the other folks involved in the conflict.
It helps enormously if we can see anger as utterly normal, even necessary. We modern folk like to think that thinking and reacting should always be lucid, calm, analytical and detached. We have tried to detach emotion thinking and interaction, and praise people who seem to never lose their cool.
But that approach denies the truth that we ARE emotional creatures, and that emotions are part and parcel of thinking, especially when we get into conflict situations. I’ll make that stronger. We can pretend that people never get angry, or that we can and should always squish anger.
But that thinking is self-deceptive and, over time, corrosive – to relationships, to teams, to organizations. Here’s one simple reason we shouldn’t be shutting down emotions like anger when conflict starts: it tells us when we feel trapped/feel anxious, and it tells us that this is important enough to us to think it through and do something about it.
As I said in my last post anger is anxiety (the impulse to run when threatened) UNABLE to run. Anger is the compulsion to turn and face the threat, in hopes of making it go away, or fighting until we see a way clear to get away. Let’s be clear about that last statement. Fight doesn’t have to mean destructive. Fight might be as simple as sit with the uncomfortable or challenging topic, talking it through, until clarity/resolution/understanding begins to emerge.
So What Do We Do With Anger, if We Don’t Shut it Down?
1) We LISTEN. The first, most useful response is to just listen to the angry person. Decades of research and practice have left us with plenty of evidence of the effectiveness of listening to anger. It tends to calm it down, deescalate it, make it much easier for the angry person (others, ourselves) to move through and beyond the anger and into a place of calmer thinking and discussion.
That can be challenging, even really difficult, at the start. When people are angry they can lash out, attack (verbally, emotionally) anyone within reach. They can also say the things they have been afraid to say when they were not angry, and that can be hard to hear as well.
(It’s important to remind ourselves here that we may very well get angry at the other person. We don’t need to squish our own anger either. We can, however, let them have their say, and then ask to be listened to ourselves. One of the best ways to make that work is to have ground rules already in place – see my blog post HERE for more about ground rules.)
The work becomes, in those listening moments, to make it entirely about the other person. We’re not there to fix their anger, we’re not there to defend ourselves, we’re only there to give them a safe forum to get their anger out and said. One the best ways to get ourselves in the right frame of mind is to remember that
2) Anger is just anxiety, feeling trapped. If we can see the angry person (someone else, ourselves) who is dealing with Flight or Fight and is feeling pinned we can begin to be a little more empathetic, even if they’re making us angry ourselves!
We seem to be much more empathetic with another person’s anger when we frame anger as fear/anxiety. We can also frame our responding to their anger as how we can most effectively assist them in thinking through their fear, rather than going on the defensive and launching an assault of our own. And speaking of being defensive, we can instead
3) See the anger as an opportunity to partner/collaborate with the angry person, rather than a pitched battle of win or lose. It’s so, so easy to see anger as aimed AT US, rather than seeing anger as the other person attempting to deal with their own stuff. But with a little practice it becomes easier to see anger as belonging to the other person (if they come at us). How can we both benefit from this angry moment? Crazy talk? No – it’s actually very savvy thinking.
By the same token, with this kind of thinking, we can take better ownership of our own anger. You might be surprised to learn how much agency/power we can give ourselves if we apply this same thinking to our own anger.
Don’t take my word for any of this, please. It’s the kind of thing that, once experienced, will make you a convert. There is a bit of a learning curve with this work, but it’s infinitely work the effort…
What topics or situations make you the angriest, fastest?
What happens to your thinking when you frame those topics/situations in terms of feeling anxious/trapped?
What topics or situations DON’T make you angry – but do in people you work with or know well?