Dealing With Conflict and Anger

“At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled” Marshall B Rosenburg

Anger is a powerful emotion taking many forms depending on the intensity of the anger. It can range from irritation or annoyance to frustration, anger, rage or even fury.  For the purpose of this article we will refer to anger to mean all emotions on the anger continuum.

All emotions have a purpose – to fulfil an unmet need – and anger is no different. However, anger is often misdirected and it can trigger incredibly destructive behaviours.  With other emotions the unmet need that triggers the emotion is clear so we are more likely to take actions that will fulfil that unmet need. For example, sadness is linked to missing or losing something you value so if we analyse sadness we can explore what we have lost and find something ‘similar’ to fill the gap. Excitement is linked to a future reward and if we follow the energy we will seek out that reward and do all that we need to attain it.

How does anger work?

Anger tells us that we have an unmet need and that something is blocking us from getting that need met. The trigger or stimulus for the anger tends to be the blockage. As such, the most common response to anger is to focus on the blockage rather than getting our needs met.

The key point to note here is that the trigger or stimulus is NOT the cause, so directing your energy at it is largely a waste of time, particularly if the blockage is unmovable.

So how can you support someone who is angry?

This can be difficult for a number of reasons:

Emotions are contagious

When someone is feeling an emotion we experience a similar feeling in ourselves. Whilst this is largely unconscious, being a function of our mirror neurons, when someone else is experiencing anger we can feel angry too. This is not conducive to connecting or collaborating!

Anger can be threatening

When we are facing someone that is angry, our instinct is to protect ourselves as it can feel threatening. In turn, it triggers our threat response and our instinctive fight, flight, freeze reactions. This escalates the situation making it even more difficult to identify what is needed and the actions that will achieve those needs.

Emotions can trigger memories from the past

This can be a challenge for the person who is angry as well as for the person supporting that individual. Any past experiences can re-surface increasing the emotional response to the present situation – similar to when a tuning fork resonates at the same frequency.

Marshall Rosenburg, author of the quote at the start, provides a wealth of wisdom and techniques in his book Living Nonviolent Communication. He recommends the following four step process for handling anger in yourself and others. I have added an additional first step to fuel connection with the other person:

Step 1 Be compassionate

Someone’s emotions and behaviours inform you about what they are experiencing – it’s not about you. Be kind and compassionate in the first instance – they have an unmet need that is causing them pain.

Step 2 Acknowledge that the trigger of anger is NOT the cause

It is not what someone has done or said that is the cause of the anger. This is borne out by the fact that someone else may interpret the situation differently. (This is the most difficult step for a person that is angry to grasp because they believe that if the trigger had not happened then they wouldn’t be angry).

Step 3 Acknowledge that it is the EVALUATION of the trigger that is the cause

There are ways to re-evaluate a trigger:

  • Think differently
  • Focus on possible unmet needs instead of the trigger
  • See it from a different perspective

Step 4 Look for the need that is at the root of the anger

When we are directly connected to the need we never feel anger as it has been transformed. For example, if our need is to be loved, valued or respected we may feel sadness when we acknowledge this as we have identified what is missing. Or, if our need is to achieve some sort of reward when we connect with the vision of the reward, we may feel excitement or anticipation for what it may give us.

By connecting with the need we can start to define what actions and steps will move us to toward meeting it. In other words, emotion ‘mobilises’ us to meet our needs.

In the example where ‘love’ is the need, anger disconnects us from this need. Furthermore, if we respond with anger, being aggressive or pushing back we are less likely to meet our need met as it is hard to show love to someone who is displaying anger.

Step 5 Communicate with the other person involved

  1. Reveal the stimulus as facts – X happened, Y was said – without judgement or interpretation. For example, avoid language such as ‘You criticised me’ or ‘You ignored me’. Instead use the facts ‘You gave me feedback about a mistake’ or ‘You did not say hello this morning.’
  2. Express the feeling – when the stimulus happened I felt …. Again this is not a judgement, it is fact.
  3. Articulate the need that is not being fulfilled. For example, I need to feel valued or I need to have security.
  4. Make a request Ask for what you would like from the other person to fulfil the need

Compassion is the antidote to anger.  When we empathise with someone, listen and support them to get what they need, anger subsides.

So whenever you are faced with anger be kind, be understanding and be compassionate. Understand what is driving these behaviours and work on the best actions for the best possible outcome in the current situation.

Create a habit of being kind as your first response and notice what happens.

For more inspiration please connect with me, comment or get in touch with me at [email protected] Take care and stay well.