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Anger Masks More Vulnerable Emotions

Behavioral scientists have conducted numerous experimental studies on the emotions of anger and fear. However, despite volumes of data, most of them have missed the key element in the relationship between the two emotional states: anger almost always masks fear (or some sort of “weaker,” more vulnerable emotion, such as anxiety, shame, guilt, helplessness, or grief).

How does knowing this help you as a Mediator? Because, as long as you accept, validate, and “stay with” the overt anger of one or both parties, you are less likely to reach a realistic settlement or feasible agreement. Just like wanting to move beyond “positions” to get to “interests,” in most situations it is better to get beyond the anger to acknowledge the underlying feeling state that is elicited the anger. Then things start to flow.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume one party is behaving calmly and one party has quickly become extremely angry. If the stance of the angry party does not soften with your usual interventions, you might consider calling for an individual caucus. If you do this, I would recommend attending individually attend to the angry party first — prior to attending to the calmer party.

Why? Because the angry party is not expecting this choice. Why? Because the angry customer is the one a clerk most wishes to avoid; the angry patient is the one the surgeon would most like to postpone seeing; the angry student is the one a teacher would most like to drop out of school; and the angry disputant is the one most likely to give a Mediator a severe tension-headache. So choosing the angry disputant first slightly throws that person “off their game” slightly, much like a change-up unnerves a fastball-seeking batter.

When you (or you and your co-Mediator) are alone with the angry disputant, the basic goal should be to sensitively, but firmly try to move beneath the veneer of anger to see what vulnerable emotion(s) lies beneath the bluster and the rage. Sometimes, this process can be activated by simply asking: “What’s the thing you were dreading most about today’s meeting?” or “What the worst possible outcome from this Mediation you can imagine?” However, some angry parties are so angry that they may continue on blustering, complaining, and cajoling even when their perceived “enemy” is no longer in the room.

If this happens, it can be helpful to “speak Minnesotan” for a while, and talk around the anger (even dropping one’s voice, so that the angered person has to exert effort to hear you), focusing on how uncomfortable anger can feel, the places in the body that actually hurt with anger, and how anger can re-arise “in a flash” even after it has seemingly been brought under control – how practiced we human beings are at getting ourselves upset again. Sometimes a snappy quote can help focus the angry party – like “Staying angry is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

If the aggrieved party is still not calm enough to open up about their latent fears, then you could try something like this monologue:

“Some experts on human behavior believe that a major function of getting angry is to cover over other types of feelings to protect us from being taken advantage of by other people. You know, like in that old children’s game rock-paper-scissors” how “paper covers rock.” In fact, our brains can become so efficient at doing this — at using anger to replace other more vulnerable feelings — most of us don’t even realize that we’re doing it. Everything happens so quickly that all our conscious minds are aware of is ‘flash anger.’ [Pause] Well, I’d like you to humor me (or indulge me) for a minute, and let’s just assume that this may be true – or at least partially true — what other types feelings might be lying underneath your anger that could make you vulnerable later on in this Mediation?”

Then, just be prepared to be with the other person in the silence, staying comfortable yourself with the present silence because you know deep within yourself, as an experienced Mediator, you are fully aware that all meaningful change takes place in the present moment.

If the angry person is prepared to wait you out, after a couple of minutes spent in comfortable solitude with your own bodily feelings and your own thoughts, you can tell a story about parenting, basically recounting how easy it is to yell at a recalcitrant child — rather than facing one’s own fears that a child may not grow up happily, won’t be successful, or will somehow expose one’s shortcomings as parental authority figure. But if one only has the presence of mind to explain to a child or teen, that angry verbalization is really just a mask for legitimate worry and fear that something “bad” will happen if a child keeps following a certain course of behavior (e.g., avoiding responsibilities, lying to others, not keeping promises, etc.). That, past a certain point, control should not be the parent’s issue, but that a child’s safety and happiness are very much important issues, and it would worry any feeling parent that their child will miss out on good things or turn away from positives simply because they are demanding never to be controlled.

Then, try more silence and wait and wait to see what the other person says, even if it only a complaint: “that’s all well and good, but I don’t see what all that gibberish has to do with what brought us here today?”

Then, “You’re right, of course, I’m guessing it doesn’t have much to do directly with what you feel has brought you here today, so please tell me how I’m missing the boat. Why don’t you teach me what you feel I need to know to be of more help to you?”

Of course, an angry person always has the right to stay angry, not get meaningfully involved, and not try to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. That’s life as a Mediator.

However, as Mediators we all can benefit from giving ourselves, our co-Mediators, and our clients the right to fail creatively. It is often the case, that men, women who are directly competing with men, people with a military background, law-enforcement officials, those who respond to crises by blocking out or “compartmentalizing” feelings or vulnerability (e.g., first-responders, physicians, nurses), or those who are scared to death of “being controlled” by others rather than sharing control (e.g., judges, CEOs, professional “managers”) are often well-practiced at the reflexive, strategic use of anger to avoid “looking weak.”

A word of caution, however: I wouldn’t use the general approach outlined here as an insincere “technique-y” ploy, if you cannot believe in it. If the foregoing analysis of the relationship between anger and fear does not feel congruent with your style as a Mediator or how you see the world, best to follow your own training and instincts.


Some supporting references the curious (or the skeptical) reader may consult:

George Ainslie. (2006). Cruelty may be a self-control device against sympathy. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 224-225.

Jennifer Freyd. (2002). In the wake of terrorist attack, hatred may mask fear. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, pp. 5-8.

Victor Neil (2006). Cruelty’s rewards: the gratifications of perpetrators and spectators. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 211-257.

Zachary Shore. (2009). Blunder: why smart people make bad decisions. Bloomsbury, Chapter One.

Tom G. Stevens. (1998) Appendix B: Overcoming Anger and Aggression in You can choose to be happy. Wheeler-Sutton Publishers. (see also web-site)


Richard J. Roberts

Dick Roberts, Ph.D. is a certified mediator who formerly participated in the Alternative Dispute Resolution program at the Iowa City DVA Medical Center.  He was initially trained as a clinical psychologist, psychophysiologist, and clinical neuropsychologist.  Although he no longer mediates due to the demands of clinical work, he remains actively… MORE >

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