You can’t do conflict resolution without doing anger management.
Anger is an emotion that everyone needs. Don’t wish it away. It provides resources essential to self-protection and survival. It helps us respond quickly, with high energy, to dangerous or unpleasant situations.
But that doesn’t mean it’s fine to rant when you’re pissed.
Talk About Anger in a Non-Angry Way
Researchers in several fields find that expressing anger in an angry way feeds the problem.
You can talk about your anger without yielding to the impulse to be aggressive or to hurt others. Say that you are angry, say why you are angry, say what could be done to improve things – and say these things without being hurtful, hostile or rude.
When Anger is too Great for Constructive Talk
If you cannot yet do this, limit communication so you don’t feed anger or damage to relationships. Use the cool-down time:
- for journaling, which has been shown to be highly effective in helping people regain perspective on anger;
- to do some detective work about your emotions (see point 3 in my essay on anger management);
- to review how to present your concerns in ways most likely to bring positive response from your counterpart.
When You’re Ready to Talk
Regardless to conflict style, a formula that helps to frame things in a non-aggressive way is the “I message” or “Impact statement”. The idea is to avoid the accusatory tone of “You are X,Y,Z.”
Instead, describe the impact of what your counterpart is doing on you and your emotions. “I feel… when you… because….” Or, “The impact of what you do on me is YYY….”
For situations where anger is intense, you are more likely to have a successful experience in conversation if you agree on a way to structure it. For example:
- Use a “talking stick” and agree that you will pass it back and forth as you speak. You can speak only when you are holding the talking stick (or pen, pillow, book, etc.)
- Agree on a sequence to organize the conversation, such as: “We’ll begin by giving each person 5 minutes to explain without interruption what they are upset about. Then we’ll try to list the issues where we disagree. Third, we’ll see if there are points that we agree on. Fourth, we’ll return to where we disagree and try to resolve those.”
- Agree to ground rules. For example, agree that each person needs to repeat back in their own words what the other person has said, to the satisfaction of that person, before responding. Use this structure for at least 15 minutes , and agree when to relax it. The pattern is: Person A speaks, Person B repeats back in his or her own words. Person B speaks, Person A repeats back, etc.
Live for Soul Not Magic
I’ve tried all the above and found them all helpful enough that I continue to use and teach them. But I’ve also learned there’s no magic – no wording or strategies that guarantee a good outcome when feelings are deep or someone is in a hard emotional space.
Even after teaching and writing about tools for conflict resolution for several decades, I still fail to achieve constructive communication in some circumstances where I try hard for it. So will you.
One of the ambiguous gifts of age is that we come to accept that which is. We learn that ultimately we have no real control over anything or anyone other than ourselves, and not always not even that. We learn to rest when we have done what we can, even if the outcome is not what we seek. These learnings shape the character of the soul and none shapes us more profoundly than our encounters with anger.
When life brings opportunities to practice the arts of resting peacefully in that which is and cannot be changed, do not close your heart to them.
For more on anger management, see:
- My essay “What to Do When You’re Angry”
- Research about anger in online networks by Jeff Lohr
- Book by Robert Allan, Getting Control of Your Anger