Trying to control anger by focusing on angry thoughts and hurt feelings is like fanning the flames. It’s far more effective to pretend you’re a fly on the wall of a situation, new research confirms.
In situations that trigger anger, you probably tend to focus on your anger and hurt, trying to understand it, get the other person to see what they’ve done, perhaps even wallowing in it a bit, self-righteously. You allow yourself to be immersed in it.
But it’s a trap: This “self-immersive” behavior increases the likelihood you’ll act more aggressively in response. Says Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, “The worst thing to do in an anger-inducing situation is what people normally do: try to focus on their hurt and angry feelings to understand them…If you focus too much on how you’re feeling, it usually backfires.”
What to do instead? View the situation as though you’re a fly on the wall. This “self-distancing” gives you a more detached view and helps you calm angry feelings, even in the heat of the moment.
When participants in one of Bushman’s studies were instructed to mentally “move away from the situation to a point where you can now watch the event unfold from a distance…watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you all over again,” they had fewer aggressive thoughts and felt less angry than those who used the self-immersed approach and those in a control group, who received no instructions.
Of course, most of us don’t have an executive coach standing with us during arguments with our loved ones, friends, or colleagues. So this is a habit to cultivate and not one that you may successfully carry off the first time you try it. Commit to teaching yourself to do it and practice when the opportunity arises.
I can say from personal experience and from my coaching work with clients that this is a learnable, method to control anger during conflict. I’ve also taught some of my clients this quick mini-meditation, which achieves similar results and can be done anytime.
Mediators who are reading this: This method can also be used during mediation. I’ve successfully helped angry mediation participants to control anger by teaching them this approach on the fly (ha!) and asking them to try it.