What is anger? It is our reaction, as per our coping mechanism, to some ‘provoking’ stimulus, observable in terms of thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Whether our reaction is appropriate or not depends entirely upon the situation and context. Coping mechanism of one person may prompt a reaction that helps to settle the matter or in coming to acceptable terms with the provocation, while the coping mechanism of another person to the same stimulus, may lead to uncontrolled escalation. Simply put, a good number of people are hostage to their knee jerk choice of coping mechanism. On the other hand, deliberately cultivating a broader basket of choices will help us to handle anger in a relatively advantageous manner. Now let us understand this matter in some detail.
- The triggering provocation is generally value-neutral, i.e. neither positive nor negative. Our angry arousal is specific to our appraisal of the given provocation, based on our background. To another person it could be no provocation at all. For example two school teachers may respond differently to loud talking in the class while they were briefly away. One may see red and yell or even punish the pupils. Another could shrug it off thinking ‘boys will be boys’. The point to note is that once our bolt is shot, escalation usually happens by reflex action between the parties involved and things may soon turn nasty. Now once that happens, the brain is likely to register the event hoping to get even on the next opportunity. This hardening of attitudes leads to perpetuation of anger. As a result, a smaller provocation may spark the fire the next time.
- Another point to note is that, when we are angry, we tend to lay the blame for our bad feelings onto another. In the above example, the teacher who saw red, would not put down her feelings to her own choice of negative reaction. In her mind, the pupils were responsible for triggering her anger. So, it is all in the mind. The pattern of our thoughts, feelings and values, positive or negative, and sometimes distorted images of reality are at the root of anger management issue.
- However, let not the above lead anyone into believing that expressing genuine outburst is always bad. But we shall revert to this point later.
PRICE OF UNMANAGED ANGER
- The first casualty of our untamed anger over unresolved conflicts, is the quality of our communication with all those around us, be they friends, peers, boss, spouse, children, parents, neighbours or anyone we come in contact with. It is seen that chronically angry people sometimes take refuge in alcoholic indulgence. This further destabilizes their social and professional adaptability. It is not too long before their occupational output suffers from errors. It takes a toll on health too. As distancing, withdrawal and/or fault-finding or plain dislike breeds a like response from others, the final straw is indifference to people and surroundings, which in turn ends in loneliness. The medical conditions associated with unmanaged anger are all too well known. Hypertension is the mother of many ills, some even life threatening. On the other hand the digestion related ills could be acidity and ulcers.
- By and large, a few things lie at the root of anger. If we perceive annoyance, unfairness or threat in any given situation, our defensive feelings will spring into action, which is only human, within reason. Carried to excess, these are certainly a cause for concern. A good way to address this point is by simply describing to the other side, how their behaviour is impacting you. ‘The smoke you exhale causes me suffocation, do you mind stepping out while you enjoy your cigar?’ is far better than yelling and fuming and having the law on them. The subtle point is no one can ever take objection to how you feel about something. There is simply no ground for an argument.
- Common behavioural quirks which trigger anger are – the need to prove a point. People afflicted with this need are boring and insufferable. They can be stuck with for only so long, and no longer. Beyond a point they rile our anger. The second category is the self-appointed critic. He needs must force his views on the public who have no use for such unofficial articulations and reviews. A third quirk is using any opportunity to run down the other person to the hilt, like the outraged officer yelling at the clerk over insignificant spelling errors. Or in the same class, parents threatening children with dire consequences every now and then. Or take the opposite quirk used by children on parents, namely throwing tantrums, especially in the presence of audience. Habitual cross examination is another such quirk, which will soon drive anyone off the edge and right into a wordy duel. Being inattentive and pre-occupied while others are making a point is certainly bad, but at home, this could sap the very essence out of warm family ties. The bundle of quirks of a generally insecure person are numerous, and would certainly rile those who come in contact with them. They resent, they vent, are jealous and negative; they draw unwarranted comparisons and take digs at other peoples’ self-esteem as soon it seems safe enough to do so.
- But a new element provoking anger, one that cannot be called natural and human, is our expectation that all respect our sense of ‘ought and should’. Here we are being judgemental, over-reaching ourselves and often asking for trouble. Expecting all to act as per our notions of ‘ought and should’ borders on irrational demands on perfectly innocent folks. If we let it go too far, we may even become emotionally allergic to seeing someone’s face. We have all heard of academically dull parents expecting their children to top the class, to the point of yelling at them, ridiculing them and driving them up the gum tree. All said and done, what must be realized here, is that we cannot alter any other persons’ thoughts, feelings, values and actions. We can only adapt our own. Here we are clearly excluding the obvious exceptions where hierarchical subordination is the norm.
- There is one more dangerous aspect to this expectation of conformance to our sense of ‘ought and should’. Certain people apply the same on themselves, and trap themselves into measuring up to their own/ somebody else’s unreasonable demands on their own selves. We see the recent cases of people suffering from cardiac arrest owing to over strenuous fitness training sessions. Such tough impositions on self could be voluntary or worse, even involuntary. It is voluntary as in the case of some earlier success causing greed for greater and greater success, pushing oneself beyond the edge of the ledge. It is involuntary when early childhood impressions of received ‘ought and should’ self-perpetuate into adult life. Feelings of being a failure or being always sluggish and depressed without any specific sore point are examples of such self-perpetuations. The extremely negative situation occurs when impressions of “stiff upper lip” and the like prevent us from expressing our feelings at all and may lead to a situation where we deny our own feelings. It is akin to having ulcers but not only refusing to consult a doctor, but even denying their existence in the first place. All these examples of being hard on our own selves are very unhealthy. Acknowledging our feelings is far better and is often the first step to coping successfully.
- Few more aspects of insisting on our version of ‘ought and should’ is refusal to accept that certain situations are simply beyond our control. Sheer doggedness in trying to control every situation can only result in burn-outs. Again, another aspect is fuming at perceived injustice and impulsively fighting for the underdog, without first ascertaining if the underdog is really destitute in the first place. The all too common feature of road-rage is basically an expression of ‘ought and should’ imposed on other commuters. Our list of unmet ‘ought and should’ trigger worry and paranoia over time. It is also a possible cause of bringing home work-related frustrations and vice versa.
- Finally there is the case of people with low self-esteem, who put others before themselves and pay the price by bottling up feelings and harbouring secret resentment and do damage to themselves. Worse, they may vent it on innocent people weaker or inferior to them, i.e. where they have no perception of threat. In other words, their opportunistic aggression covers for lack of assertiveness. Further, their root trouble is not being able to visualize a healthy and fulfilling future. It that better outlook could be brought about, their whole life would improve.
- Thus unmanaged anger is be a kind of abdication of emotional control on our part, which is a recipe for disadvantageous outcome. Think of a charioteer with the horses bolting entirely out of control or are at a complete standstill. The charioteer needs to be in control and command the horses if he has to win the race (advantageous outcome, in this context). If we are ruled by our wayward emotions running riot, it becomes a case of tail wagging the dog. Let us not forget that anger is a very powerful feeling. It left smouldering, it can ruin our relationships and happiness, leaving us mired in miserable grouchiness. If we are always edgy, touchy, glum and full of self-pity or on the other hand wild, hyper, all-controlling, all-demanding and angry, there is a good symptom to suggest that we are out of touch with reality. Let us remember that reality is objective, but our perceptions are subjective. This subjectivity is good, as it lends us our individuality. But it is only good if held within reason.
- If our subjective perception of reality is not within reason, it begins to distort reality. Such distortions go hand in hand with anger producing thoughts and feelings. Examples of these could be applying broad sweeping labels on people or situations, it is worth knowing that these labels, in turn act as mental road-blocks for us, as we cannot see past them. Being unduly hard on others or oneself is another such distortion. Our above-mentioned ‘ought and should’ mentality is a powerful distortion of reality. Selective emphasis on certain elements and ignoring/ denying the rest is another kind of distortion. Seeing everything through the prism of thumping success and anything even an iota short of it as utter failure is yet another example. Always making either over optimistic or over pessimistic predictions etc. It is worth mentioning that distortion of reality is a progressive phenomenon which worsens over time.
PRODUCTIVE COPING MECHANISMS
- The first step is the realization that anger is triggered and fuelled in our mind, as a result of our usual coping mechanism. The objective reality has little to do with it. Next crucial step is taking suitable psychometric tests to profile our predominant and back up coping styles. It must be understood that we have a pre-dominant coping mechanism as well as back up mechanisms. But going into that discussion without keeping our psychometric test result on the table, will not be very beneficial. Suffice it to say there may be different ways of coping unproductively. One may crawl, hide and flee, another may bottle up one’s frustrations and/or hit at soft targets, a third may play blame-games along with attention-seeking yelling or crying, yet another may try to be all-controlling and all-dominating, some may hide behind artificial humour, some behind foul language, some behind substance abuse, some behind over-eating and that often leans towards junk food, etc. The most futile kind of anger stems from the person who loves to argue at the drop of a hat about anything under the sun. Innocent conversations turn sour and degenerate into bickering at short notice. Holding grudges for ages. All these are dysfunctional coping mechanisms.
- But the moot question is, how one changes one’s well accustomed knee-jerk reaction and cultivate productive coping mechanisms. Obviously it is hard, but thoroughly worthwhile. There are generally two streams to it – physical and behavioural. Walking, some daily exercise and being busy on some worthwhile activity goes a long way in keeping us within safe limits physically. The behavioural stream has essentially three milestones. First is, understand one’s style, as a result of taking appropriate psychometric tests. Such tests will also throw up our preferred ways of distorting reality. Acknowledging the problem is the first milestone. This may well be the first time we see ourselves as others see us. No cure is possible unless the malady is laid bare in broad daylight and duly acknowledged and owned up.
- Second milestone is, honestly asking oneself, how one would like to feel after dealing differently with the familiar provoking situations. It may sound like the clichéd homily on ‘beginning with the end in mind’. Well it really is that, and what is more, it works equally well in the realm of managing thoughts and feelings too. A good way to begin practicing is finding a good role model to emulate. The role model should be one whom one has seen producing desirable outcomes in situations that provoke one badly. Adapting our own behaviour becomes easy when a clear model of how we want to act is before us.
- Third milestone is, keeping a log of hits after each occasion of successfully handling the situation better. Mind you, we are not interested in keeping a log of both hits and misses. Well-deserved self-congratulation being a medicine at this point, let us confine ourselves to log of hits. Accumulating small successes will surely lead up to big paradigm shift. One thing needs to be kept in mind, that preparation is key. True, there may be no time to pause and reflect when the provoking situation is really upon us. But we do have time to anticipate and mentally play out the familiar provoking situations by responding differently, before they occur. In other words, wherever possible, look before you leap.
- As with any change from bad to good habit, letting go of the past lies at the core. We have to change the very template of our established thoughts, feelings, values and behaviours and be guided by what we want to achieve at the end of it all. We are now conscious of a few important things in very clear terms. We have understood our unproductive coping style, we now know our distortion of reality, and we are now hopefully equipped to see the provoking situation for what it really is. We may even succeed in debunking its provocative potential. Finally we have an alternate template of our role model to emulate. In other words, here we have a wise choice that replaces mindless, impulsive and needlessly confrontationist behaviour. It is really a major departure from the past. We must guard against relapse into the bad old ways of the past.
PAYOFFS OF VALID ANGER
- The foregoing may have led some to assume that all anger is unhealthy and therefore has to be ‘managed’ and that it should never be allowed to run free. That is not correct. Anger can be for valid causes and then it is healthy. There should be no need to suppress or deny the same. The only qualification here is that if we ask ourselves whether the expression of anger will help the given situation, the response should be in the affirmative. We are all human, and feeling of anger is a genuine expression of our inner state. We should have the judgement to evaluate whether our anger is constructive in the given context. If the answer is yes, expression of anger will surely be desirable. We feel better for having acknowledged our feeling without defensiveness. The subtle point is we can responsibly express our anger without needlessly running down another person, and help improve the given situation too. With a little practice we can benefit from such constructive anger.
- Examples of constructive anger could be such anger as gives us ‘eustress’. Too little arousal to any situation is indifference, in the mid-range lies good stress (i.e. eustress) and too much is distress. If anger releases us of our suppressed tension, it is constructive. It is surfaces long submerged conflicts that helps settle some old mess, it is desirable. If we have been deliberately betrayed where our trust was reposed, then we should surely take up the matter with the culprit. In such cases some flying of sparks is not bad, if it ends in opening a fresh and better chapter between the said parties. In other words, where our anger resolves problems, it is legitimate and constructive, where it creates problems, it is harmful and destructive.
- The only care to be exercised in expressing legitimate and valid anger is –both sides cannot express anger simultaneously. That is a prescription for assured catastrophe. Taking turns at listening is much better.
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
- We may unknowingly get provoked or we may unwittingly give provocation, in certain situations where anger was never intended in the first place. Here we are referring to faulty communication styles. Here wrongly assumed connotations enter the picture, even darken the picture, causing misgivings on both sides. Examples could be the offensive tone of voice. It could be wrong choice of words. We have heard the saw that the Brits and the Yanks are divided by a common tongue. American speech is apt to come across as overbearing to the British speaker unaccustomed to Americanisms. If we sound as if we are trying to size up the other person, it could be resented. If we get the feeling that the other person is trying to draw out our views, tactfully reserving their own, we may bristle at his ploy. The fact of the matter could well be that the other fellow was only trying to understand our stand, but was ham-handed in his expressions. Here his medium (of expression) overpowered the content of his message. Anyone sounding too cocksure or superior is likely to raise our hackles, even if the no such intention existed in the first place and only his manner was unfortunately brash. It is simply a lack of sensitivity on the part of one or both sides, nonetheless gives rise to anger. As a general rule we should neither be passive, nor aggressive, but should try to be assertive. Finally it must be borne in mind that our poor listening habits could also trigger anger in someone who is taking pains to put forth his say clearly. This aspect of troubles caused by poor listening will be covered in some length in another blog. So a realization that our medium should not threaten the relationship, will probably save us from such unintended aggravations.
- The most common examples of the bad medium ruining the perfectly good message are – encoding our message in language that does not convey the meaning clearly, or which garbles the meaning altogether. But this is a gross example. Many subtle and fine examples exist, like – having an analytical style of listening making the other party uncomfortable with fear of being evaluated. Another example could be the person who is so matter-off-fact in everything, that his conversation borders on being a killjoy. He is always pushing others to get to the point quickly, allowing little room for the more expressive speaker. Similarly the non-verbal medium ruining the message could be – using an admonishing attitude, shaking our fingers when speaking. Rolling our eyes, shrugging, drumming our fingers on the table etc. are all examples that we are not considering the other person worthy of any attention, let alone rapt attention. Again some messing of message could be done entirely unwittingly, like when we are too stressed and do not see the merit of building in small relaxation capsules in our busy day. The take home from the foregoing is that all of us have different styles, but on a man to man basis, we relate best to the people who have a style similar to ours. The formal type may be uncomfortable with the informal type. The one who wants to get to the point quickly may be a task oriented go-getter, but will not get on well with one who prefers gentle understanding and open chatty communication. We may never be protean enough to assume different styles, but we can surely be tolerant of and to some extent, even enjoy the other person’s style.
- While on this point, a thought may naturally arise that it is all very well for us to be careful that our medium should not ruin our message, but what about being at the receiving end of such mismanagement? Or what should we do if the shoe is on the other foot? Take for example one who is trying to give us some well-meaning feedback but we interpret the same as criticism with a dash of intemperance and take offence? Well there is a way to keep things in check, before we fly off the handle and hurt the relationship. We may employ the old ruse of visualization here. We may see the person raving about our faults as someone waving his flag on the hilltop in desperate need of attention. With this we effectively distance ourselves from the charged emotions on both sides. Now, as we are not hot under the collar, we may sell back to him the points which we agree with by clothing it in our language. Similarly we may dilute the other points by paying scant attention. We may thus reduce the space for the fire of confrontation to spread. This is a good containment strategy without losing our composure. What have we effectively done? We have tweaked his medium and the message both, with little opportunity for fireworks.
ON ORGANIZATIONAL ANGER
- So far, we have considered individual anger, but there is a phenomenon called organizational anger. It happens when many people in the organization are angry over commonly felt wrongs. Such anger is fuelled by feedback till it spirals in huge swirls throughout the halls and corridors of the organization. It is often caused by lack or recognition to deserving candidates, or if the seniors are happily playing favourites and playing politics as well. The cause could be poor quality of leadership or the leadership failing to see the writing on the wall while the organization is speeding down some precipitous slope to doom. Here rumours attain the status of circulars. The people in such places are generally demotivated and angry. They gripe slyly and then more openly, building up to a point where caution is thrown to the winds, and some may talk to the media against the organization too. The common fix for this is open healthy two way communication, which in turn will lead to more productive interventions like analysing feedback, better participation in decisions, approachable leadership, forward looking management, fostering team spirit and a host of other good moves that help the organization back on even keel.
In the foregoing text, we have very briefly touched upon the point of beliefs and values. Although our beliefs and values are important factors in our temperamental make-up and our anger threshold, going at length into this aspect, really calls for a full blog on that alone. Which is coming, watch out!
This blog has been written by the author from personal observations, reading miscellaneous publications and material on the internet.
By Nirmal Chowdhary, Veteran HR Professional, Ex Hero MotoCorp Limited; Ex Mahindra & Mahindra; Ex Associated Cement Companies Limited (ACC). To get in touch with Nirmal, you can send us a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org