Clarifying Assumptions

Mistaken assumptions underlie many conflicts. We often draw conclusions about others’ intentions or actions based upon our own perceptions. We may assume they said or did something because they don’t care or worse, they are “out to get us”. We tend to think our own perceptions are unbiased and objective (Lee Ross, a social psychologist at Stanford University, calls this naïve realism.) It is indeed a naïve attitude. When disagreements arise, we may not check out our own assumptions. Instead we rely and build upon them, often making the conflict worse.

Clarifying assumptions can create breakthroughs in understanding. When an assumption might be fueling our anger, asking for clarification gives us a chance to learn something. Instead of defending ourselves, asking the other in a genuinely curious way the basis for the comment opens an avenue for better understanding. (“When you said ‘x’, what did you mean?” Or “Can you tell me where you are coming from? I don’t get it.” Or “Can you say more about ‘x’? I don’t understand”.)

A proactive approach to conflict involves stating our own intentions when entering territory that’s risky, before the other side makes assumptions. Giving the rationale or basis for holding a particular view or proceeding a certain way informs the other and prevents disputes. The other may not agree with your rationale, but at least there is an understanding of what’s behind your thinking, and the path is open for dialogue. We can avoid a lot of conflict by taking more mindful, preventive approaches.

Staying Centred

In my view, the single most important coping strategy in situations of anger is self-management. This does not mean squelching our own legitimate interests or pushing down anger. It means looking inward to the source of the anger, and recognizing that a good part of anger stems from how we see the particular situation we are in. If we can’t change the situation, we can change the way we see things. Instead of externalizing the conflict and blaming the other for our feelings of anger, we can look within and try to understand the source. We can each ask ourselves: “What is going on here? What am I afraid of, worried about, or hurt by? What ails me?” It may be that I am concerned about a loss of control (“Oh, surely not me! And yet…?”) I may be afraid of change. I may be worried about losing face if I don’t “win the argument”.

These explorations are challenging. It is much easier to simply attribute our anger or frustration to the other’s unreasonableness, selfishness or stupidity. Remember, nobody makes us angry.

We choose to become angry. We are in charge of our anger; it need not control us. This is liberating knowledge; at the same time, it puts responsibility on us.

This idea applies equally to being a recipient of the anger of another. How we think about it shapes how we feel about it. Without taking personal affront, we can move into the other’s

resistance, (remember timing – see last week’s article), acknowledge the other’s anger and try to understand it.

What about anger over wrongs perpetrated against us? The Dalai Lama, when asked why he was not angry at the Chinese for their occupation of Tibet, replied that there would be no point to being angry. He said that anger eats up the angry one; it doesn’t cause others to lose any sleep.

Unresolved anger festers. It creates resentment and over time, leads to bitterness. These negative feelings we can live without.

The emotional energy that is anger runs from irritation at a minor slight to full-blown rage. When we are able to stay centred and work with anger in a state of awareness, we discover anger is a potent informant that something needs to change. We need our healthy anger to work against injustice, inequality, climate crisis denial. We can turn its force to creativity. This is the kind of work that satisfies and does not hurt others.


For those of us who are old, age is no excuse to become belligerent, intolerant of other viewpoints, and stuck in our ways. Being in old age offers a chance to expand our hearts and build our empathy. After all, we’ve lived, seen and done a lot; we’ve made more than a few mistakes along the way. And we have hopefully learned to recognize if something is life- threatening or not. I like the idea of saving our biggest anger for causes and using it to move us toward positive action. We don’t have to take sides. We can always be on the side of humanity, of peaceful co-existence in a world that works for everyone. That eases our minds, feeds well- being and spreads goodwill at a time when it’s sorely needed.

Author: TIG