As I touched on in my first piece, it can be tempting to associate nonviolent communication methods with denying our feelings of anger, or denying ourselves any way of expressing those feelings. But anger can communicate much more than the desire to hurt another person. Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that a certain appropriate level of anger – directed at the right things and at the right time – was an element of virtuosity. For Aristotle proper anger was a way of expressing self respect, and also an attunement to injustice.
In her piece on anger and conflict resolution on Mediate.com, Jeanette Bicknell follows Aristotle’s line of thought, and also points out that modern feminist thinkers found anger to be a key component to rediscovering and expressing a kind of empowering self-respect. In conflict, self-respect can enable transformation; it can even pave the way for mutual respect, as someone who respects themselves does not need to denigrate or abuse another in order to establish their own feeling of emotional safety. So the ability to engage and express feelings of anger can be related to a very positive and even gratifying form of confrontation – a connection which has been confirmed in studies such as this one.
Additionally, as Matthew Hutson writes in his New York Times piece “Expressing anger can sometimes benefit all the parties involved, not just one of them, by clarifying boundaries, needs and concerns.” Anger can communicate very important messages about how important something is to someone, how much they are affected, and even how much they care. It is an important indicator for us to pay attention to – both in ourselves and in our counterparts.
However, as Bicknell points out, “the available empirical evidence does not support the view that the expression of anger is always beneficial. In fact, recent research suggests that the expression of anger is helpful only if it is accompanied by constructive problem solving designed to address the source of the anger.”
Dealing with expressions of anger in conflict, then, is a difficult question. Angry responses contain a lot of information and can be very powerful, even illuminating; Bicknell makes the point that some mediators feel that when their clients get angry with one another they are getting into the “real work” of conflict transformation. At the same time, reactive anger can easily upset the delicate balance of constructive dialogue processes or cause increased escalation.
However, as Cornell College’s website on Anger and Conflict Resolution states,“there is no such thing as unexpressed anger.” Despite that confronting anger might sometimes scare us or feel like a precarious endeavor, it can be important to unearthing the underlying dynamics of a conflict and achieving resolution on all dimensions: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.
When it comes to making mindful choices about when to express our anger, Bicknell suggests asking ourselves the following questions to reflect on, first: Is this the right time to show anger? Am I angry to the right degree? Am I angry for the right reasons?
I’ll close this series on anger with a poignant quote from Bicknell about what you can intentionally communicate through anger, and what you can intentionally avoid:
“[It] is important to consider all that you communicate with an angry outburst – about your feelings in the moment, but also about your character. Are you communicating that you are a reasonable person who is understandably upset by some serious matter? Or are you communicating that you lack appropriate self-control in the face of some annoyance or inconvenience? Caught in the grip of conflict and struggling to keep perspective, these are not easy issues to think about. Yet thinking about them is absolutely crucial and goes to the heart of what kind of person you want to be.”
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.