Is anger dangerous? Is it a “bad” emotion? Anger is at the center of many problems in relationships. Anger itself is really not the source of the problem. Anger is a normal, healthy, necessary emotion that protects us from being hurt by others. It’s how we express it- or, just as importantly, fail to express it- that causes problems with the people in our lives. Problems in relationships at home, at work, with our children our loved ones, friends or even strangers can arise from an ineffective expression of anger.
Too hostile an expression of anger is self-defeating. Anger that is too intense-too loud, verbally abusive with cursing, insults or threats, or too extensive, going on and on with a laundry list of complaints rarely achieves change in the relationship. When we are too hostile or aggressive with our anger the other person rightly focuses on how cruel and unkind we are and the message we are trying to convey is lost in their fear and distress. Too much hostility can just set off a cycle of retaliation without anything constructive developing. Hostility or verbal abuse rarely achieves the outcome the angry person desires-a change in the other person’s offending behavior. Anger that is too weak is also not effective. What makes anger too weak? It can be a failure to express it at all: “just holding it in”, not making waves, walking on eggshells to avoid causing trouble. Some people who are afraid to express their anger try to take punitive action that will harm their target in the vague hope that they will understand the retaliatory behavior was done to show them how much they hurt the other person. This usually fails to solve the problem as well.
What should our anger do for us? It should allow us to speak about things that bother us in our dealings with others in such a way that the other person’s behavior changes and the difficulty between us improves. We want our anger to change the other person’s behavior. That is fair and appropriate. If someone treats us in a way we do not like-again, this can mean a boss, a spouse, a friend, a parent, a salesperson or a child- we want them to change. That should be our goal. How can we best accomplish this?
If we are too aggressive or express our anger with hostility, what is the most likely outcome? Often the other person becomes defensive, tries to justify their actions or is so distressed by our words they don’t even respond. They will often become angry and try to retaliate for the wound we inflicted. If we are too passive in our anger, the other person’s behavior is likely to continue and may, over time become worse as they feel justified in their actions since we did NOT protest. I have often said over the years that it takes a great deal of care and feeding to create a bully. The more we fail to protest against behavior that violates our rights and needs, the more the other person feels entitled to have things THEIR way without considering our rights.
So how can we express anger appropriately? Here are some important steps to follow:
- Pick a time when you can have the other person’s full attention. Ask if they have time to talk to you.
- Emphasize your respect and consideration for the other person and their point of view and let them know you are trying to solve a problem that is interfering with your ability to interact well.
- Describe the problem in a clear and concise way. Use an example if possible. Avoid insults and “hot” language. Rehearse and write it down what you wish to say beforehand if necessary.
- Listen to the other person’s point of view.
- Try to negotiate and develop a strategy for resolving the problem in the future.
An angry reaction to another’s behavior can be a powerful tool. When expressed correctly, negative feelings can change our relationships and our lives for the better.