How To Use Anger Constructively

“Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it.” Rene Descartes

Despite the frequency of anger in our everyday lives, so much of it is not handled well. As I wrote last week, anger is often dished out inappropriately and ineffectively.

In fact, anger, not handled well, just creates more anger. Take the late night mugger, for example, who was wearing a ski mask and jumped into the path of a well-dressed man. The mugger stuck a gun in his victim’s ribs and said, “Give me your money.”

The affluent man became indignant and said, “You can’t do this. I’m a U.S. Congressman.”

“In that case,” replied the angry robber, “give me my money.”

Fortunately, there are some “best practices” when it comes to handling anger. When you’re angry, I suggest the following:

=> 1. Slow Down.

In the midst of anger, it’s easy to speak impulsively. It’s easy to say things you don’t mean or may truly regret.

I’m not suggesting that you stuff your anger or pretend it doesn’t exist. You certainly need to recognize your anger, but you don’t need to vent it. When you simply dump your anger on someone else, it seldom works. The other person seldom listens or makes any lasting change.

The other person has a hard time “hearing” the real message when you speak too fast or come on too strong. So slow down.

The same thing could be said of your handwriting. You might have heard about the doctor who went on a ski trip and got lost on the slopes. He stamped out “HELP” in the snow, but nobody could read his writing.

=> 2. State Clearly And Firmly What Is Upsetting You — Without Attacking The Other Person.

Say something like “I don’t like being ignored at our team meetings.” or, “I am very angry. You promised to call at noon and never called.”

Please note — you are using the “I” word. You’re speaking for yourself. You’re explaining what you feel, and you’re identifying the behavior you did not like. That’s being assertive.

By contrast, aggressive people use “You” language. They label the other person, saying such things as “You’re selfish … stupid … arrogant … etc.” They label the other person as some kind of evil human being. That seldom works.

=> 3. Keep The Information Flowing.

In the midst of anger and conflict, some people shut down. They withdraw, pretend nothing is wrong, walk out of the room, create distractions, or use the silent treatment. And none of those behaviors work … because the information flow is interrupted. The very communication that will eventually resolve the difficulty is removed.

You’ve got to keep the discussion going. As Powell and Brady say in their book, “Will The Real Me Please Stand Up?”, “Whatever is not openly expressed in a relationship becomes a subtle form of destruction.”

If at all possible, you’ve got to stay open minded, and you’ve got to keep on talking. Of course, if it seems like the anger is intensifying, either one of you can call a temporary time out. But you have to agree on a time when you will return to the topic.

=> 4. Use An Appropriate Degree Of Anger.

Anger can range from mild annoyance to extreme rage. And yet most people don’t know how to use the right amount of anger. They may use a sledgehammer when a feather would have worked.

For example, you may work in an office environment, and you may be annoyed when some coworker in a nearby cubicle is playing his radio too loudly. An appropriate expression of anger might be, “It’s difficult for me to concentrate when your music is so loud. I would appreciate it if you would turn down the volume.”

If the noise continues, you could use a stronger wording, a firmer tone of voice, and a sterner facial expression. You might say, “I may not have been clear before, but I must ask you to play your music at a MUCH lower level.” You could even back up your message with a consequence: “And if we can’t resolve this on our own, I’m going to ask our manager to intervene.”

Rarely do you ever need to use this last level of anger. But so many people are so afraid of expressing any anger that they avoid it all together. They just hope the problem will go away. When it doesn’t, they get frustrated and jump to the higher level of anger, leaving others puzzled or hurt by the intensity of their outburst.

=> 5. Let Him Vent.

Use those four tips and you’ll handle your anger much more effectively. Others will listen to you, and conflicts will be solved more readily.

But what if you’re around someone who is dumping his anger on you? Even though his anger may be unfair, and even though he may be expressing it inappropriately, if at all possible, let him vent. Most research says the other person’s anger will peak at about 3 or 4 minutes — if you just listen silently.

On the other hand, if you try to intervene, if you tell the other person to “cool down,” if you try to share your feelings, that simply adds fuel to the fire. This is not the time to teach the other “how” to share his anger.

In fact, if everyone followed the five tips in today’s newsletter, we might be able to avoid the solution that the “Chicago Tribune” columnist Eric Zorn referred to. He said a quick way to eliminate all inappropriate anger and behavior would be to have the President secretly and randomly select five people in each state every January and July to serve as his agents. Those people would have the authority to kill, without punishment, anyone who is an annoyance, nuisance, or threat (excluding family members). The empowered agent would be required to warn offenders three times in a polite manner to stop whatever they might be doing — smoking, coming to work late, using obscene language, etc. And if the other person did not heed the warnings … oh well!

Mr. Zorn says if this plan were instituted, we’d see an instant improvement in the way people treat each other. We’d see people respecting the rights and feelings of others. He’s probably right.

But given the fact that plan will never be used, I defer to the first four tips above.

Action:  Before you ever get angry again, outline — in advance — how you will stay calm despite your anger. If you plan out how you want to respond, you probably will respond that way the next time around.