NAVIGATING ANGER (part 1) Sally Campbell

The thing about anger is that we all experience it. It is a normal aspect of being human. You might think of it as a sign of being fully alive. People who say they’r e never angry are not in tune with their feelings. Anger is consider ed to be a secondary emotion because there are other emotions beneath it that the anger is masking. They could be frustration, fear, sadness, hurt, embarrassment – any number of emotions which expose our vulnerability when we express them. So instead, it comes out as anger. When we can figure out the

trigger to our anger and what lies beneath it, we have a much better chance of managing or avoiding an angry response altogether.

Anger can be thought of as an informant; it tells us that something isn’t working, something has to change. Often what has to change is our own mind-set, the way we look at something. Other times it’s external – an aspect of relationship, our habits, our ways of doing and being in the world. It’s not anger in itself that is a problem; it’s how we express and work with our anger.

Most of us learned how to express and respond to anger (or not) by our parents’ example, well before we were aware of what was happening. We take this unquestioned imprinting through life, most often never examining it. Inability to work effectively with anger can have devastating results and lead to many a broken or troubled relationship.

I’d like to offer some practical ways to improve that effectiveness. You may find something you can apply in your interpersonal communications, or you may find validation for your existing ways of working with anger. Many of these ideas are simple common sense. They can be hard to apply though, when we are rattled by what someone just said or did. These ideas are offered for contexts where personal safety is not at risk. Anytime that is the case, safety is paramount.

With any formidable life challenge, it helps to have a wide variety of tools in the “tool kit”. You don’t want a hammer to be your only option. Anger is no exception. So here are some ways to work with it. I’ve learned these ways through experience – working as a mediator for many years, often in contexts of intense anger – and also through untold hours of training in service of my career and as a lifelong learner. The work is never over in this sphere; if we think we have these tools “mastered” we’re usually deluding ourselves, setting ourselves up for a big, humbling crash. Plus, this whole arena of communication is really more about attitude than skills. We can acquire all the skills in the world, and if we relate to others with arrogance or aggression, all that training is for naught.

Anger is a healthy form of resistance. Anger expressed poorly, in the wrong place or at the wrong time, creates resistance & defensiveness.

Although angry expression tempts the recipient to react defensively by either responding in kind or backing off, working with anger involves bringing energy toward the angry one, by trying to understand what is behind the anger. In Justice Institute BC terminology, this involves moving into resistance, resistance being defined as “the negative expression of an unmet need”. There

are many different ways to find out what’s fuelling resistance. An honest curiosity can make a huge difference. What is going on for this person right now?


Asking a question of the speaker that can’t be answered by “yes” or “no” (an open question) can:

  • help the speaker clarify intent,
  • give you more information, and
  • defuse the speaker’s anger.

How you say something is as important as what you say. Your tone of voice will say more about the genuineness of your intent to listen & learn than the content of your words. This means that you must manage your own emotion first (more on this coming). If you can’t muster a curious, non-threatening tone of voice, you are not yet ready for this conversation. Timing is really critical and it’s a challenge, as the temptation to react in the heat of the moment (or the slight) is strong. Who hasn’t been there, wishing we’d just kept our mouths shut? So, giving ourselves time to let our emotions settle to a calmer place is a critical aspect of navigating anger.

When the time feels right, we can always start with an inquiry. Open-ended questions (beginning with how or what, or when you said…, what did you mean? for example) are important, as they invite the speaker to give their own perspective rather than simply respond to your lead. In the world of legal speak, “leading questions” are so named for a reason!

Next week: Part 2