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Conflict Resolution and Anger

Anger can make us do and say things that we later regret. It can make a person do and say things that they would never do or say in normal circumstances. Most of us know or have known someone who became angry over trivial matters, or whose anger was detrimental to themselves and their relationships. There is a Buddhist saying that I think perfectly sums up the self-destructive character of anger: Holding onto anger is like holding a burning coal with the idea of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Yet there is another side to anger. Anger or indignation can also be tied to our sense of justice and injustice. When we believe ourselves or others to be victims of an injustice this can make us angry. The philosopher Aristotle thought that the ability to feel anger at the right times, to the right degree, and for the right reasons, was a characteristic of a virtuous person. He thought that there was something flawed about a person who would fail to become angry over a serious injustice to himself or his friends. And later feminist thinkers have linked the ability to feel anger to proper self-respect. This is why to tell a woman that, “You’re cute when you’re angry,” is demeaning. It suggests that the individual expressing anger (and the slight that caused it) are not to be taken seriously.

So while the expression of anger can be both damaging and self-damaging, it is not necessarily an emotion we’d be better off without. Sometimes we feel driven to express anger, as Shakespeare’s “shrew” Katherine tells us:
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
or else my heart concealing it will break.
Yet at other times the expression of anger would be self-indulgent at best, and have serious harmful consequences at worst. I have in mind here occasions like expressing anger towards a boss, co-worker or a customer, or having an angry exchange with one’s partner (or ex-partner) in front of the children. Even if the capacity to feel anger is tied to self-respect, sometimes the ability to suppress the expression of anger is a sign of mature self-restraint.

In modern society we’re often encouraged to express anger. However it is worth noting that the available empirical evidence does not support the view that the expression of anger is always beneficial. In fact, recent research suggests that the expression of anger is helpful only if it is accompanied by constructive problem solving designed to address the source of the anger.*

Mediators have different views on the expression of anger during the mediation session. While mediators are trained to diffuse anger and other negative emotions, they don’t always choose to do so. I’ve heard experienced mediators say things like, “My clients were really screaming at each other – that’s when I knew we were getting somewhere!” I find it interesting that these mediators link the expression of anger with the work needed to resolve a dispute. It has been known for some time that attempting to solve disputes through a confrontational process such as litigation tends to make individuals who are already aggressive even more so. Furthermore the expression of anger in litigation is unproductive; it is not tied to any work or to any eventual solution of the dispute. The very nature of litigation is that someone else has the responsibility for solving the dispute. The expression of anger in a mediation session is a different matter. It has the potential, at least, to be real constructive work. An angry exchange in the privacy of a mediation session might be part of the process that leads to a satisfactory resolution for everyone involved.

So… when to express our anger, like Shakespeare’s Katherine, and when to keep it inside?  While there are no easy answers, we might do worse than referring back to Aristotle:

Is this the right time to show anger? In the home, is there a possibility that young children might witness my outburst and be upset by it?  At work, will my supervisors and co-workers think less of me if I display anger?  Rather than reacting and displaying anger in the moment, a better strategy might be to suppress the response and share your feelings later with a trusted confidant.  In a mediation session, expressing angry feelings to the mediator during a private session (caucus) is likely to be safer than sharing them with the group as a whole.

Am I angry to the right degree? Even if the time is appropriate, is the degree of your anger reasonable, in light of the cause?  People who get very angry over real but relatively trivial matters rapidly lose the respect of those around them.

Am I angry for the right reasons?  Remember the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”?  Are you angry because of an injustice, or because of an inconvenience?  Would a neutral outsider share your perspective?

To sum up, it is important to consider all that you communicate with an angry outburst – about your feelings in the moment, but also about your character.  Are you communicating that you are a reasonable person who is understandably upset by some serious matter?  Or are you communicating that you lack appropriate self-control in the face of some annoyance or inconvenience?  Caught in the grip of conflict and struggling to keep perspective, these are not easy issues to think about.  Yet thinking about them is absolutely crucial and goes to the heart of what kind of person you want to be.

* See Littrell, J. 1998. “Is the Re-Experience of Painful Emotion Therapeutic?” Clinical Psychology Review, 18, 71–102; and Lohr, J. M., Olatunji, B. O., Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. 2007. “The Pseudopsychology of Anger Venting and Empirically Supported Alternatives,” Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5, 54–65.

Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell is the owner of Principled Dispute Resolution and Consulting. She provides civil mediation for legal disputes, and helps organizational clients manage conflict, create flourishing workplaces and build effective teams. Jeanette holds an Advanced Certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution and a PhD in philosophy. Jeanette combines a naturally calm… MORE >

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