For the greater part of some 300,000 years our species has existed, the evolution of self-defensive anger is one of the reasons we have in fact existed for this long. Being able to fight back and flee where necessary to ensure survival has offered us an advantage over species who perhaps remain immobilized in the face of a threat. However, an even more integral part of our evolutionary history has been the deeply ingrained desire to connect emotionally with others. If the best chance at our individual survival is to be a valued member of a social group, it makes sense that we sometimes feel a disturbing panic when others seemingly do not understand what it is that we are feeling, or why we are feeling that way. Our brains do not know the difference between needing someone to understand our emotions and needing them for survival. Comprehending what others are feeling without a supercharged conflict is a challenge we very clearly still face today, despite mind-blowingly convenient technological advances to get our needs met and an abundance of physical safety compared to primitive times.
You don’t have to look very far to find people who are charged with anger, or at the very least irritable and on edge waiting to explode. And chances are, we will have to interact with one or more of these people at some point throughout the day. Whether it be a family member, friend, colleague, a slow driver that exists solely to make us late for our own affairs, or someone who just looks at us the “wrong” way in passing, we may not actually be at fault for the onset of a particular conflict. Unfortunately, however, this does not excuse the way we blindly maintain the continuation of said conflict. If the beginning is more linear (A caused B), it is still up to both parties to resolve the issue. And in that attempt at resolution is where things can get tricky.
The Brain's Threat-Detection System
In many cases, one person becoming charged with anger can increase the anger of those around them. This is because of the brain's threat-detection system responding to subtle changes in tone/volume of voice, movement of facial muscles, body posture and positioning in relation to other parties, and even showing teeth more when yelling. These are all factors that we don’t consciously experience until long after the brain has deemed them threatening. If we feel that threat, we may be quick to try and overpower the conflicted party verbally or physically, increasing their detection of a threat, and moving far away from resolution. Instinctually we may think that shouting and yelling louder will increase the chances that someone “hears” what we are saying, and it does quite the opposite. The brain structure responsible for processing language and the meaning behind what others are saying is almost entirely flipped open and disconnected from the conscious mind when under a perceived or real threat. We don’t need to speak and listen when physically fighting or running away, so the brain directs all its energy to becoming physically dominant. It is through this process we see the importance of staying within the expressive range we desire from the other person, and they are much more likely to meet us there on their own rather than being ordered to do so.
Listen to the Conflict at Hand
The next step in successfully navigating emotional conflict and increasing connectivity is to listen. Not just listening to the words, but how they are being said. Listening is about being open-minded, humble, and curious. It's important to listen with this mindset because in doing so, it reflects on our behalf that we have never been to the place from where they are coming, despite our general shared emotional experiences as humans. When we effectively communicate that we want to learn about someone’s internal, subjective world, we increase the likelihood that they open up to us with more expansiveness. People are often expressing things that we simply cannot see or feel, and sometimes never will. Owning the fact that just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, is the essence of humility. It allows for the coexistence of feelings that are perhaps opposing in nature. We aren’t always able to make gray out of black and white, and quite often must view conflicting ideas as a plaid design. The black and white simply sit next to each other, neither side dictating the other to be “right” or “wrong”.
Validation of the Conflict
The next step is to validate. Validation means that we acknowledge the existence of their feelings or that we understand what they are communicating. Validation does not involve any judgment on the nature of what others are feeling, it’s simply letting them know that their feelings exist and are real. The tone in how we validate is also crucial. The more we sound like we’re joining their mind in saying whatever it is that they’re feeling, the more validated they will feel. Removing any hint of sarcasm is important. When we make open ended validating statements or add “too” or “also” to what we acknowledge in their expressions, we pull away from the egos desire to be correct. We also leave room for them to clarify and further explain. When we disconnect from the ego in our identification of what others are feeling, we communicate that we see exactly where a person is residing emotionally and display much less of an attachment to where we think they should be, which can add to conflict. Staying open to being corrected at all times while listening gives a sense of control back to the conflicted party which is a large part of the antidote for problematic anger.
Some commonly used validation statements are:
“You seem really upset…”
· “It sounds like you feel this in your whole being…”
· “That sounds like it really hurt…”
· “I can’t imagine what must be going through your mind…”
· “It seems like it’s so overwhelming it’s the only thing you can think about right now…”
· “I can see you’re frustrated that I don’t seem to be getting what you want me to be getting…”
(This one is high powered because so many people are conditioned to have someone who is trying to help turn around and stop trying if they’ve been told they are incorrect about what’s going on. Sticking around and naming the fact that they’re angry we aren’t getting it, although counterintuitive, is essential for reducing the charge of the conflict.)
Explore Options Together
The last step in successfully navigating conflict is exploring options together. Much like physical pain during the acuity of an injury, it is hard to focus on anything else but that painful emotion when it’s at its peak. Anger especially narrows our focus, and often prevents us from seeing just how many options we have to resolve an issue. This is why the first few steps must be carried out in order for us to circumvent the fight or flight response and allow for the processing of language and its meaning. Another key factor in exploring options is that no option is denied as a possibility. Essentially, all options are possible, despite many of them not being appropriate or beneficial in the long run. But being told that we simply cannot do something, especially in the face of anger, increases the likelihood that we will do just that because of our instinctual need for autonomy. Validating the anger and still trying to understand why someone would want to do something potentially dangerous in heated conflict only makes their entire being feel more validated, safer to let defenses down, and better able to help us help them.
Think of these steps as a way to yield with others in conflict rather than a head on collision. Sure, colliding stops both vehicles but often leaves everyone involved in danger. Effectively navigating interpersonal conflict is the equivalent of riding alongside them, eventually leaving our vehicle to get into theirs, and after they’ve realized we’ve been looking through the same windshield from the passenger’s seat, they trust us to take part of the wheel and drive...
Sean O'Connor, Licensed Mental Health Counselor at Peaceful Living in Scarsdale, NY
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
He helps clients with learning how to manage anger in a healthy, improve focus and concentration as well as overcome flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares.
Sean is licensed in New York and Florida and is accepting new clients.