When you're not getting something you want, or getting something that you don't want, anger may surge. Beware, as excessive anger is one of the leading causes of divorce, and can cause significant damage to children, friendships, and work relationships. How effective is your anger control?
What Is Anger?
Anger wells up in response to chemicals from the more primitive middle and lower parts of your brain, chemicals designed to mobilize animals for aggressive action. "GO!" is the message these chemicals give, spurring an animal forward to forcibly get what it wants — to dominate over a potential rival, to be the first at food, to scare away or fight an animal that could cause harm.
Anger in people serves pretty much the same purposes. Anger mobilizes you for action to get what you want. That is, to make others do what you want them to do, or stop doing something you dislike.
Alas, however, when people lack anger management skills and instead explode angrily, their anger eruptions are likely to engender serious costs. Anger outbursts may win the battle, giving you the immediate object of your desire. At the same time, unlike bulls or lions, people tend to want to affiliate as well as to dominate. People want to be liked, and even loved. While anger outbursts may win the immediate battle to get you what you want, they weaken your connections with and attractiveness to colleagues, friends, and family.
Angry Feelings Alert You To A Problematic Situation
Once anger has conveyed its Pay Attention message, however, the angrier you feel, the less effectively you'll be able to solve the problem. That's because anger decreases your ability to think, take in new information, take a fresh perspective, or come up with a new solution. Anger closes off ears to data uptake. Like your computer, overheating causes the brain's information-processing mechanisms to freeze, to shut down. No thinking.
The Key To Anger Control Is To Remember That Anger Is A Stop Sign
What do you do at a stop sign? Everyone knows the answer to that. You do not pick up the stop sign and clobber oncoming cars and trains with it. No. You stop, look, and listen.
Stop moving forward in the current interaction. Pause for a moment of silence so you can breathe deeply, and use whatever you have in your bag of tricks for lowering your emotional intensity (distraction, relaxation, count to ten, etc.).
Stop moving forward on the hot topic by pleasantly making a left turn onto another pathway: "Oh, by the way, I meant to tell you that Aunt Jennie will be in town..." Better yet, take a suave exit. "Excuse me. I need a drink of water," you might say as you stand up and walk into another room. Then distract yourself, breathe deeply, sit in your quieting chair, and when you are calmer, plan how you will handle the situation more effectively when you return from your time-out.
Look at the situation from a fresh perspective to figure out what you really want. Then think of an alternative strategy, a more clever way than bludgeoning your dialogue partner with anger, to get what you want. This is where you have a big advantage over bulls or lions. You can use words to analyze your situation, explain your concerns, and create a plan for what you might do differently.
Beware! There's a potential trap here. I call it the "locus of focus" trap. Your focus must be on yourself, not on the person at whom you feel angry. Stay clear of thoughts about what you want the other person to do differently. A focus on how to get the other person to do what you want will escalate your frustration and anger.
Your focus needs to be on yourself — that is, on what you yourself could do to handle the situation more effectively. Empowering yourself instead of controlling others is a key component of overcoming anger tendencies. So again and again, remind yourself when you're getting mad: "My job is to figure out what I myself can do differently to get what I want, not to tell others what they should do."
Here's the hardest part: ask about the other person's concerns, and then listen attentively for what makes sense to you about their answers. Listen to truly understand their perspective, not to tell them what's wrong with their viewpoint. When you're angry, genuinely listening to the person while you're mad can be remarkably difficult. That's because of a perceptual shift that anger evokes. When you're angry, you'll feel as if what you want is sacred, and what the other person wants is irrelevant. Your wants will loom huge — others' will shrink to virtual nothingness.
You'll have to be sure, therefore, that you have thoroughly calmed yourself during your initial Stop. That's essential, so that when you get to Listen, you'll be able to hear others' concerns. Fortunately, if you truly do listen well enough to understand sympathetically the other person's perspective, you'll have higher odds of getting what you want! Sound paradoxical? It is, and it's very real. Ask any skillful salesperson. The more a salesperson understands his customer's concerns, the more likely that they will reach an agreement.
Listening to truly understand the other person is critical to the win-win waltz, the three steps of collaborative problem-solving. Win-win solution-building is far more effective than anger as a strategy for getting you what you want. In addition, talking together cooperatively to find solutions that work for both of you keeps your relationships, at work and at home, strong and positive.
So for reliable anger control when you see red, remind yourself: anger is a stop sign. What do you do at a stop sign? Stop, look, and listen.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in helping couples to resolve their conflicts. Her fun online marriage education program, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, which is for all folks, married or not, teaches the skills for sustaining a strong and loving relationship.
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