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Anger Management

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Let us suppose that you are at a mediation or in some sort of negotiation and the other party has just said something that has gotten you so angry, you are ready to grab your belongings and storm out of the mediation/negotiation.

What should you do: give in to your feelings and storm out? Vent? Or, suppress them? It seems that none of the above is the appropriate response according to Psychology for Lawyers by Jennifer K. Robbennolt and Jean R. Sternlight (American Bar Association 2012)

Common sense tells us that in order to be an effective negotiator we must manage our emotions. We must exercise impulse control. We will get nowhere if we “fly off the handle” every time someone says something that gets us upset and thus distracts us from our goal: to settle the dispute.

So, do we vent? Not such a great idea! While it is a common belief that venting or blowing off steam will help calm us down or help us “get over it”, recent studies indicate just the opposite. That is, venting “…doesn’t help to moderate anger and may instead make things worse. …[B]y focusing attention on and rehearsing the angry feelings, venting tends to keep those feelings alive, perpetuating and sometimes even intensifying them.” (Robbennot, Jennifer K. and Sternlight, Jean, R., Psychology for Lawyers (American Bar Association, 2012) at p. 58)

So, do we suppress the anger and the emotions that go with it, pretending that nothing has happened? Again, the answer is “no”. This strategy, too, has its difficulties:

Actively trying to monitor and suppress emotion once it occurs-the kind of thing we might do when trying to keep a poker face- requires a great deal of energy and cognitive capacity. Because efforts to suppress emotion take place after an emotion occurs, such efforts tend not to decrease the experience of emotion. Indeed, thought suppression tends to have ironic effects: the monitoring required to push thoughts out of our minds ends up highlighting those very thoughts….Efforts at suppression can sometimes decrease the degree to which emotion is expressed…..But the cognitive effort involved in concealing the emotion tends to result in increased emotion and decreased memory.” (Id. at 59.) (Emphases original.) (Footnotes omitted.)

So, what do we do? We take a break of some sort, either physically by going for a short walk, for coffee, to the restroom or down the hall just to chat to someone about something else. In short, we go “out to the balcony”. Or, we take a break mentally, by lightening up the discussion and talking about hobbies, vacation, pets, and other pleasant and engaging activities. We distract the mind and thus our attention away from what caused the anger and towards topics that create positive emotions, or “happy thoughts”. Or, we can seek to re-appraise the situation, by trying to put it into a different and more positive light. We can ask a question or two to find out exactly what is the cause and source of the emotion. Is it truly anger or fright or frustration? Knowing the source, we can then perhaps reframe the situation, by putting it into a different light, or perhaps by discussing it from the other person’s perspective. In short, we try to look at it differently, hopefully with a positive spin. (Id. at 59-61.)

So… the next time you are confronted with an emotional party, don’t throw up your hands and walk out; use one of the above options!

…Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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