In my last post I wrote about anger’s “good side,” and the importance of appreciating its importance, but I left off with a warning: we need to develop a thoughtful and wise relationship with anger in order for it to play a positive role.
In his New York Times Sunday Review piece, “The Rationality of Rage,” Matthew Hutson explores a range of social, psychological, and behavioral research regarding the positive and negative ways that expressions of anger tend to manifest in different scenarios.
Walk the Line. In one social psychology experiment, expressions of anger were tested in three negotiation scenarios: cooperative, competitive, or balanced between the two. “When cooperating, hostility seems inappropriate, and when competing, additional heat only flares tempers. But in between, anger appears to send a strategically useful signal,” writes Hutton. This analysis relates specifically to negotiations, but the notion that anger is productive only in a context of balance can be applied more broadly. If the power balance or sense of emotional safety or confidence between counterparts is too imbalanced, you may end up with very negative consequences.
Specify the Object. Hutson also cites a study arguing that anger works better in negotiations “when it’s directed at an offer rather than at the person.” This, too can be more broadly applied. In any interpersonal exchange, anger may play an important role in expressing the significance of an issue for one of the parties. However, if the anger is directed at the other party as a person – rather than at a behavior, or a specific choice or situation – it is much more likely to become personal and potentially devolve into a more abusive and regressive exercise.
Keep it Reasonable. The intensity of the anger expression can make a huge difference as to whether it engenders a negative or positive outcome. Particularly in the situations I would like to address – in which anger can help generate mutually beneficial outcomes – chances of success are much higher if the expression is fairly low-intensity. This strategy correlates with my July newsletter, on using a “direct but low-key” approach for conflict in the workplace.
These three study-based observations can help us think strategically about when expressing anger is likely to help us achieve a desired outcome, and when it’s not. Note also that all three imply that to engage with anger effectively, you need to have a reflective relationship with your experience of it, and be able to make choices about how and when you express it. There is a big difference between expressing angry feelings to your counterpart because they indicate something important, and letting them rule your response, flying off the handle or taking out your anger in an unreflective manner. As an extra cautionary note, I’d like to mention that Hutson also cites a recent paper on the potentially negative outcomes of expressing anger: Wang, Northcraft, and Van Kleef found that when the use of anger goes wrong, it can result in “covert retaliations.” So don’t be fooled – carelessly using angry intimidation to extract concessions and then leaving your counterpart feeling mistreated is likely to result ultimately in being undermined, even if at first it seems like you got what you wanted.
Hutson is mainly focused on the use of anger in negotiations – in winning. But I’m interested in extending this conversation to the role of anger in scenarios where it’s not enough for one side to come out on top. In conflict, it might get more personal, but anger still remains an important tool and emotion. Stay tuned for part III, about anger in conflict resolution.
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.