Q: I am the person that you wrote about last month! My children and my spouse have told me that I am always angry. When I have asked for examples, they have told me that I am “too direct, too blunt, and cold.” I really didn’t accept what they were saying until some of my close associates at work started asking why I am so upset all the time. Finally I’ve had to admit that I need to listen to their feedback and begin to believe them. How can I learn about the source of my anger? And is there some way that I can reduce the anger I am displaying?
A: First, I applaud you for your commitment to improve the way that you communicate and interact with others. Second, you need to decide if you are truly angry. This will require that you become more self-aware by watching yourself and how others respond to you. For example, if you notice that the person you are talking to is displaying aggressive gestures or using a caustic tone, you ought to take a look at your own gestures and tone. Often people reflect back what we reflect to them. How people respond to you can tell you a lot about how you are coming across and your own style of communication. Finally, if you can catch yourself becoming emotional, the emotions you feel signal that there is something going on in your head. Your challenge is to uncover how your thinking is driving your behavior.
Being able to recognize how you communicate with others has a lot to do with your particular style or the way in which you think and interpret the behavior of others. The context in which you find yourself may also impact your interactions. Let’s talk about your communication style and the impact of your thinking, and then I’ll offer some strategies to help you.
Checking Your Style
There are four distinct “interaction” styles that encompass the visual, vocal, verbal, and mental aspects of communication. One of these styles, the Initiator, is focused on achieving results and action. A person with this style tends to be direct and blunt. They are precise and concise in how they deliver a message. This style shows little emotion unless someone has failed them in some way, and then the Initiator will anger quite easily. People of this style are frustrated by others who want a million questions answered before they decide anything; by those who want to make a personal connection or talk about personal issues before getting down to talking about tasks; or those who have lots of great ideas but can never completely implement or execute any of them. If this describes your style, then the other people in your life are probably misinterpreting these characteristics of your style as anger.
Checking Your Thinking
Another component that contributes to how we interact—even more than our style—is our thinking—the way we interpret a situation and how our perception drives our behavior. From the time that we were very young, our brains have been selecting bits and pieces of data and making interpretations. Together, these make up the sum total of our life experience. Unfortunately, the unconscious and subconscious parts of our brains also make assessments and cause us to react in ways that will ensure our self-preservation. These reactions are often accompanied by an emotional response. Consequently, when we recognize that we are feeling an emotional reaction, we can be sure that somewhere behind what we are saying and doing there is a thought that triggered that reaction. This whole process occurs so quickly that we are usually unaware of what we are even thinking in that moment. In other words, our thoughts and emotions “have us,” we don’t have them.
From reading the previous blog, you will remember that anger is a secondary emotion because it usually follows another, primary emotion. The primary emotions might be fear, disappointment, frustration, rejection, or embarrassment. Outside your consciousness, your brain is interpreting what you are experiencing as a potential loss. For example, let’s say someone at work breaks a commitment to complete a document by a certain time. You are frustrated by their failure to keep their commitment to give you what they promised, and you may be afraid that your manager will call you to task for the other person’s poor performance. In a millisecond, your brain tells you something like this: “The only way to get results is to yell at him. Go for it! Let him have it.” So you do, with all the fury you can muster. Your frustration and fear are masked by the anger you end up expressing at the person’s failure.
So how do you gain control to the point that you can maintain your composure and get past your emotion to discover your thoughts? It is a skill you can learn, but you have to work at it. Start by examining your thinking.
Here are some strategies you will find useful.
You will remember we used this skill to force ourselves to think differently. We also learned that changing our thinking changes our feelings. It is important for you to finish the “I’m angry because…” statement as many times as you can. Try finishing it 100 times and write it down so you can see your responses. This is a wonderful exercise that will help you to see what is really going on in your thought processes.
Here are some other sentences you might try finishing 100 times:
“I feel afraid (threatened, embarrassed, rejected, or disappointed) because…”
“I feel angry because I have lost…”
“I (want, value, or need)…”
Why do this? Answering questions like these allows you to look at your thinking and assess whether it is accurate or not. You will be surprised at how incomplete or inaccurate your thinking actually is. Once you have recognized the flaws in your thinking, you are free to gather additional data and formulate new realities. Doing this will reduce the degree of emotion you experience the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.
“I’m angry because….”
“I’m feeling this way because I wanted ….”
Becoming more self-aware, making adjustments and learning to challenge your thinking will go a long way towards improving your conversations. As a friend once said to me, “You can get angry and yell at people all you want, but remember, it never works and it usually drives people away.”
Recognizing how you come across and what you are thinking is a challenge we all should improve on if we want to hold conversations that work.