Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.
As often goes when I am having lunch with my friend Moshe Ratson, a marriage and family therapist and executive life coach based in New York City, we start, after a bit of catching up, “talking shop.”
You see, in addition to being a writer of this column, I make my daily bread as a director of a mental health counseling and training center in the Big Apple. This is where Moshe and I met. And so, the other day, sharing a table and some takeout in beautiful Bryant Park, and after giving an opinion on who will win the NBA championship (Moshe plays a mean point guard), I told him about a book I have been reading by Amanda Ripley titled High Conflict.
In summation, Ripley’s latest discusses the difference between “good conflict,” where things are debated and resolved with respect and a healthy give and take, versus “high conflict”, which is more of a “us versus them” mentality that never leads to anything but more division.
Now Moshe, among other hats, is also a writer, with a new book he’s shopping to publishers focused on anger. He explained that anger is often central to conflict, and there are ways to use it to promote good and better outcomes. In this regard, he talked about his work with couples in conflict, and how anger between them is sadly too often destructive when it can be the foundation for positive transformation and a better relationship. Intrigued, and wanting another column, I asked him to give some strategies on how couples can use anger in such a way.
Here are his tips:
Underneath anger usually lies deeper and more vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness, or pain. These are all less accessible for your partner to address. Such impulsive anger can serve as a protective shield, which for a short time makes your partner feel strong and in control. Yet, in the long run, it hurts them from within. This is why it is important to have compassion toward your partner and move away from blame and accusation. Understand that your partner’s anger is simply a call for help, unfortunately, it is done in a desperate, unhealthy way.
With patience, you build the resiliency to face your partner’s anger as well as your own. Patience is the ability to refrain from reacting to an angry provoking situation, for example, and imposing your will on it. It empowers you to tap into the space between an event and your response. Patience can serve as the antidote to anger within yourself as well as your partner. It is patience that allows you to pause, so you can respond rather than react. It is about waiting—not speaking or doing anything that may be automatic or reactive. Patience and compassion are the foundations of positive energy and cooperation in relationships.
Mindful breathing is one of the most powerful and accessible resources for self-regulation, relaxation, and overall well-being. You can use your breath to anchor yourself and move your attention from disturbing thoughts to the present moment without judgment. Deep breathing provides extra oxygen that relaxes your muscles and promotes calm. It builds confidence, skillfulness, patience, strength, and endurance. When you become angry with your partner, take a deep breath and feel the anger instead of pretending it’s not there. Embrace this present moment with a full breath, and stay with your feelings until you fully exhale. As you exhale slowly, you also exhale the stress associated with anger.
Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” When you experience anger, we are often tempted to justify our anger and react to it. When you do that, you only add fuel to the flame. But if you could interrupt that pattern and train ourselves to pause, you will find more constructive ways to respond, rather than acting impulsively.
UNDERSTAND THE TRIGGERS
To be responsible is to accept your role in being frustrated with an angry partner and reflecting on what actions may trigger their anger. It also means understanding what triggers you to behave the way you do. The more aware you become, the less reactive and more constructive you may become. The result may be greater well-being for you, your partner, and your relationship. If you realize you played a role in escalating an argument, be accountable and acknowledge your part. Your ownership may reduce tension and encourage your partner to do the same.
EVALUATE THE CONSEQUENCES OF YOUR ACTIONS
Most decisions have some negative effects and some positive ones. Your task in choosing your next action is to minimize the negative consequences and increase the positives. Consider the impact and consequences on yourself and others. Also, part of being skilled in dealing with your partner’s anger is the ability to learn from previous experiences. You have the capacity to analyze and realize the consequences of acting in certain way; you can see how detrimental behavior driven by uncontrolled anger is.
PUT YOURSELF IN THE OTHER PERSON’S SHOES
Empathy is understanding other people by using your imagination to feel something like what they are feeling, such as pain, sorrow, and other emotions. So, imagine yourself in the situation or circumstances of another person, so as to understand or empathize with their perspective, opinion, or point of view. Before being quick to judge someone for their actions, you should try to put yourself in their shoes. This powerful exercise cultivates the power of empathy and understanding.
SEPARATE THE PERSON FROM THE BEHAVIOR
If you criticize your partner for being a bad person, their defensiveness will amplify, which in turn will lead to further aggression. When you keep your focus on disapproving of the choice of action your partner has made, you are able to demonstrate respect for your partner, while at the same time, able to address the negative behavior. When your partner senses your desire to meet them where they are, your partner will be less defensive and will encourage them to do the same.
DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY
Remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I know it is hard, but don’t take your partner’s behavior personally no matter how personal the attack is. What drives most people’s difficult behavior is that they perceive an obstacle to what they want. You just happen to be that obstacle at that moment. This does not mean that you allow inappropriate personal behavior or comments against you. It just means that while you express your refusal to accept the behavior, you can remain calm and dignified because you have not internalized with their behavior.
ADDRESS THE CHALLENGE WHEN YOU ARE BOTH CALM
When your partner’s emotional state is highly charged, their cognitive state may be impaired. There is little point in addressing your issue as long as the anger dominates. Allow time for the negative energy to settle to establish more rational discussion. When both of you are calm and collected, address the issue that led to your partner’s angry behavior. At this time, they may be more open to listening and understanding. Also, don’t forget to apply this rule to yourself. When your emotional or angry parts are activated, take time to calm yourself. Anger fuels anger, and calming promotes a calmer atmosphere.
THINK INFLUENCE, NOT CONTROL
Don’t focus on trying to change your partner. You can’t. You can, however, influence your partner and show them the benefits of your position. You can influence your partner by creating a positive environment that is conducive to cooperation rather than control.
You may have heard the expression, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” When you treat your partner with sweetness, you bring them closer to you—and closer to understanding how feel and what you need. This will lead to greater collaboration and better outcome.
UNDERSTAND AND VALIDATE
People often act in an angry way because they think they are not being heard, not being taken seriously, or not being appreciated. They may feel disappointed and ignored. To avoid amplifying your partner’s anger, it is wise to actively listen to them until they feel heard and understood. Try to understand their deepest needs, and validate their feelings and experiences. Validation is one way we communicate acceptance of ourselves and others. It doesn’t mean agreeing with everything. Rather, it is recognizing and considering your partner’s perspective. Validation requires you to be present and genuinely attempt to understand. The other part of validation is accurately reflecting what you hear—for example, “What I hear you saying is ______. Is that correct?” This should be done without assumption or judgment while being clear, calm, and compassionate.
Acting assertively is a respectful way you express your wants directly and at the same time considering your partner’s feelings and wants. Being assertive is the middle ground between the extremes of aggression and passivity. It is key to commitment and courage. Assertiveness allows you to find effective ways to stand up for yourself and other people. It is characterized by clear, respectful, confident communication. You express your feelings, thoughts, and opinions in a way that is open and that does not violate the rights of others. When you act and speak in an assertive manner, you are confident, honest, and open. At the same time, by being assertive, you empower your partner to own their responsibility and act assertively as well.
If you apply the above strategies, you may be astonished to see how much the energy between you and your partner transforms and your relationship flourishes.
Moshe Ratson, MBA, MS MFT, LMFT, is a pioneer in anger management and has helped hundreds of clients transform anger into equanimity. Featured on TV and radio and in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, he lectures worldwide and coaches Fortune 500 companies, governments, religious organizations, and leading nonprofits. http://www.spiral2grow.com/