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The Upside of Anger

From Phyllis Pollack’s Blog


In most disputes, when people get angry- it is a bad sign! It usually means that the dispute will NOT get resolved, and that one or the other party will leave in a huff.  Indeed, neuroscience teaches us that when the emotional side of our brain (right brain) is operating in full force, there is absolutely no way that we can think deliberately or rationally (?). Our left brain is being overpowered by right brain.

So, does this mean that anger and resolving disputes simply do not mix? Not necessarily!  An article in the New York Times Sunday Review section (September 20, 2015)   entitled “The Rationality of Rage” by Matthew Hutson dispels this notion.  Mr. Hutson writes that based on recent studies, anger may be quite useful in negotiations.

In a soon to be published study in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers tested the effect of anger in three types of negotiations;   those that are cooperative in nature,( such as two business partners planning a new business venture), those that are competitive in nature (such as the two business partners dissolving the business) and finally, those that are balanced in  nature (such as one business partner selling his share of the business to the other.)

What the researchers found was that,

In two experiments, negotiators made greater concessions to those who expressed anger — but only in balanced situations. When cooperating, hostility seems inappropriate, and when competing, additional heat only flares tempers. But in between, anger appears to send a strategically useful signal.  (Id.)

An earlier study explains what the anger signals:

What does that signal [anger] communicate? According to a 2009 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, anger evolved to help us express that we feel undervalued. Showing anger signals to others that if we don’t get our due, we’ll exert harm or withhold benefits. As they anticipated, the researchers found that strong men and attractive women — those who have historically had the most leverage in threatening harm and conferring benefits, respectively — were most prone to anger.

The usefulness of anger in extracting better treatment from others seems to be something we all implicitly understand. A 2013 paper in the journal Cognition and Emotion found that when people were preparing to enter a confrontational negotiation, as opposed to a cooperative one, they took steps to induce anger in themselves (choosing to listen to aggressive versus happy music, for example).

The study also found that people induced anger in themselves only if there was an actual benefit at stake for them in the negotiation. This qualification was essential in demonstrating that it was the perceived strategic benefit of being angry (and not, say, just a reflex that we have when entering any confrontation) that prompted people to induce such an unpleasant mood in themselves. (Id.)

This anger, though, must be genuine. Other studies have shown that if the anger is faked, the other party will pick up on this and find you even less trustworthy and make even more demands on you, than if your anger was genuine.   (Id.)

In one of my first mediation trainings, the instructor told us two things; focus on the issues and not on the people; be soft on the people and hard on the issues. This article notes that these truisms are paramount: “Anger … works better in negotiations when it is directed at any offer rather than at the person making the offer…” (Id.).

The use of anger also depends on the power balance/ imbalance between the parties; an angry person of low power will only irritate the other party, and suffer backlash. In such situations, showing disappointment is the better strategy. (Id.)

Finally, Mr. Hutson notes what every person schooled in conflict resolution has learned; expressing anger can be beneficial as it will clarify the needs and interests of those concerned.  Think of any dispute that you have had; until you expressed your frustration/ anger- the other party probably was not aware of what you were thinking/ feeling. Only once you expressed your emotions, did the other party have her “ah hah” moment (akin to being hit over the head with a baseball bat!) and attempt to meet your needs and interests by finding a mutually satisfying resolution.  (This can even occur globally such as with Israel and Palestine!)

So… while you may equate anger with a loss of control… it may be nothing more than a strategic move towards resolving the dispute!

….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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