The Crucial Difference Between Yelling at and Yelling Toward

I described this scene to a group of HR managers at a recent seminar:

The woman was screaming and yelling at the top of her lungs. Cursing a blue streak. Waving her arms wildly. And it was me she was addressing as we stood together on the sidewalk of a small town during evening drive time. I still remember the faces of driver after driver slowing down to watch the spectacle as they passed. And wondering how long I had before someone called the police.

About twelve years ago I agreed to mediate a very contentious conflict in a small co-housing community. By the time they called me, things had escalated so badly that verbal altercations between neighbors were commonplace and everyone’s inner lizards were calling the shots.

Contrary to what many think, most mediations are not full of shouting, cursing and general mayhem. Most are civil with occasional brief blips of frustration.

Not this one. I had done a great deal of work beforehand with each participant, to help them bring their best thinking and selves to the table, but the conflict was very raw and very escalated for many in the room. Then one of the men in the room insulted the intelligence of one of the women and she was out of her chair and at the exit door in a flash. As she exited, she shared a parting shot at the guy, flipped him the bird, and slammed the door behind her.

I wasn’t about to let an ill-conceived insult end that mediation. “Take a quick break!” I yelled as I ran toward the door, “I’ll be back in five minutes. No one else go anywhere — please!”

I caught up with her at the sidewalk and she turned, letting loose a cascade of anger about all her frustrations with her neighbors for the past three years.

One of the HR directors in the audience raised her hand. Why did you put up with her screaming at you like that? It wasn’t even about you. And how did you put up with that?

There’s a difference between someone screaming and yelling at you and someone screaming and yelling toward you, I replied.

It’s an important distinction. Our natural response is to push back when someone yells in our direction, to say, hey, buster, you don’t get to treat me like that.

But when we can realize they’re yelling toward us, not at us, we understand they’re really desperately saying, Can’t somebody help me out here!?! Doesn’t anyone understand my frustration?!? When we hear what they’re really saying and asking, we don’t need to push back or call them out, because our compassionate selves have already started figuratively to embrace them.

The woman on the sidewalk next to me dropped her shoulders and put her face in her hands. I’m sorry, she said, I’m just so very sick of this. Now look what I’ve done! I yelled at my own mediator.

We talked for a few minutes about how she could let me know earlier next time that she was approaching her boiling point so I could help her differently. We talked about what she was willing to commit to doing instead of striding out next time. We talked about what would happen when we returned to the meeting room and crafted what she wanted to say in such a way that it had a good chance of being heard. Then we went back in the room and finished the mediation.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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