What we believe about anger has an impact on what happens during emotionally charged conflict. Relief from the suffering of conflict can come from them changing how they act on their anger, of course. And it can also come from us changing how we think about anger.
Many years ago, I had a huge argument with one of my mediation faculty colleagues. We usually had an excellent relationship and I considered her not just a treasured colleague, but a friend. We didn’t often disagree, but when we did, we did so without drama or leftover tension.
But something went wrong on that particular evening.
What went wrong? I can’t recall. What did we argue about? Who knows.
Those weren’t the memories worth tucking away.
The memory worth tucking away was the incredible gift my colleague gave me later, hours after the argument, when we apologized to each other.
“I’m sorry, Alice,” I said. “I feel rotten about how I handled myself. You must be shocked now that you’ve seen my hundred-year storm.”
“No,” said Alice, “I’m not shocked. I’m grateful.”
Grateful? From what planet did this woman come?
Alice said the words I’ll never forget:
“Now I know you truly consider me a friend. You let me see a side of yourself that was unfiltered and raw. Only a friend would do that.”
I learned so much from Alice in that moment. Instead of chastising me for my display of anger, instead of shaming me for it, instead of viewing it as a personal attack, she gave me a gift.
If we think of anger as a weapon, then perhaps we choose battle. If we think of anger as proof of their emotional instability, then perhaps we treat them as broken and flawed. If we think of our anger as shameful, then perhaps we hide ourselves in embarrassment.
But if we choose to view anger as a signal, or as a gift, as Alice did, we don’t only do them a favor, we do ourselves one, too.
The argument that night proved the genesis of so much work I’ve done over the years since to normalize the experience of anger and conflict for clients, audiences, and grad students. It sent me on a quest to help people understand that the way we choose to interpret someone else’s anger has incredible power to shift what happens next.
Instead of handing over our power by making them alone responsible for our suffering, we choose dominion over our own experience.