In many of my posts and tips as a mediator, I emphasize the use of mindful dialogue strategies, nonviolent communication, and reflection over reactions. These are some of the core cognitive tools that inform the practice and philosophy of mediation, and thus I write frequently about honing them for the purpose of developing better intentional practices in mediation, leadership, and communication.
I have also acknowledged the importance of emotion in conflict regarding, for example, analytical frameworks for understanding conflict, or the multiple dimensions of resolution. However, one emotion that can often go unacknowledged – and unappreciated – is anger.
Shouldn’t we try to avoid anger? Isn’t anger always going to make things worse? With all the emphasis on cultures of peace or nonviolence, it might seem that way. But a closer look reveals that anger can play a key role in successful communication and conflict resolution.
It feels counterintuitive, but failing to recognize anger as an important emotive force in our lives can actually work against the holistic project of nonviolence. Anger is not just a blemish on our temperaments, it serves a purpose.
According to “Formidability and the logic of human anger,” a paper from the 2009 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and cited by Matthew Hutson in a recent New York Times piece, anger has evolutionary roots.
“Anger evolved to help us express that we feel undervalued,” writes Hutson. “The usefulness of anger in extracting better treatment from others seems to be something we all implicitly understand.”
In addition, Hutson points to studies showing that humans display a strategic and patterned relationship with anger, intentionally inducing it in themselves to prepare for particular scenarios. Anger is not just a reflex, a ‘mistake’ that happens when we get out of control.
Anger can instead be about the need to be heard, seen, and respected – and potentially a sense that those things are not sufficiently occurring for someone. In this case, a suppressive or repressive strategy might inhibit the resolution of a conflict. Nonviolent communication is not about denying feelings, but embracing them to reach more constructive and mutual forms of communication. Anger cannot be treated as an exception to that practice.
All this said, anger is a powerful emotive force, and it can be dangerous, too. Certainly anger can tip communications from nonviolent to violent – so we need to be careful how we engage with it. Come back next week to read about when and how anger can be a positive force.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.