Tip #665: Five Steps to Transform Anger

“It is wise to direct your anger towards problems –not people; to focus your energies on answers –not excuses.”   William Arthur Ward

If we lose objectivity due to our anger, we lose control of ourselves and the situation. There are five steps we can take to transform our anger into something positive and constructive.

Step #1:    Disengage from the Situation

When we disengage, we focus on the results we want while we cool down.  We can either physically remove ourselves from the situation or take an emotional time out. Disengaging is not the same as withdrawal, which is in effect a power play that involves resisting the other person’s feelings. It is simply a way to keep defensiveness from escalating.

Disengaging means setting aside differences temporarily and being willing to address them at a later time. It is taking a time-out to reflect, reduce the tension, and let our emotions settle.

At the same time, it is important to assure the other person they will get to have their say. Setting a specified time to renew the discussion is one way to communicate our intention to deal with the issues. The effect of this is to acknowledge the other person’s point of view (and their worth) without saying we will agree with them.

To effectively disengage, we need to make two basic assumptions:

  1. that our own competence is not in question, and
  2. that we are not being personally attacked. 

Step #2:    Defuse Anger

Anger is almost always accompanied by self-talk that focuses on what seems unfair or hurtful, an unmet expectation, how upset we are, or how we are going to react. To defuse anger, we need to rewrite that script.

Try to discover the thoughts that are fueling your anger. Then test each thought:

  • Is it based on observable facts?
  • Is it giving you good ideas to calm yourself and resolve the problem you face?
  • Is it free of distortion?

If you answer “no” to any of these three questions, your thinking is likely making the situation worse and should be discarded.

Step #3:    Determine the Desired Positive Outcome

Our goal is to find a more positive yet rational view of the situation. We need to focus on realistic expectations for this person or situation based on past behavior. Then we need to create a plan for what we will do next time rather than getting angry or inappropriately expressing our anger.

A good plan is specific and describes actions that we will take. It is under our control and its outcome can be measured. Having a plan increases our sense of control and will actually reduce any anger arousal that might potentially be triggered.

In order to create your plan, place the unpleasant situation in the context of current and past factual events that are more acceptable to you. Then reevaluate it in the light of less threatening facts that help you understand another person’s actions. Review your own strengths and consider what you need to help you cope with this situation.

Step #4:    Discover the Other Person’s Needs

Effective listening can make us more competent, defuse anger in others, help us understand others, win respect, and build self-esteem in others. Inquiring about the other person’s concerns and listening actively can help build a foundation of mutual trust.

When we feel the need to criticize people or correct their behavior, it helps to remember what it is like to be on the other side. To empathize is to figuratively put ourselves in the other person’s place.

It is also useful to empathize when we feel we’re being personally attacked and are about to become defensive ourselves. If we try to understand what may have motivated the other person’s behavior, we may be less likely to react in a way that escalates the situation.

Step #5:    Discuss Mutual Needs and Desired Outcomes

When we communicate our feelings, needs and goals to the other person, we want to do it in an assertive win-win problem-solving manner that is least likely to generate a defensive response.

A powerful, non-defensive way to do this is through “I statements.” Beginning with “I statements” says we are taking responsibility for our communication. The statements often begin with the words “I feel.”

James Creighton suggests following up “I feel” with words that describe our emotions, followed by a description of the precipitating event, and then its tangible or emotional impact.

An example is: “I feel (I statement) angry (emotion) that I had to look all over for the car keys (precipitating event). Because it took so much time, I was late for my appointment (tangible impact).

An example in the workplace might be: “I feel (I statement) upset (emotion) that I did not receive your marketing budget on time (precipitating event).  Because it was late, I will need to rewrite the proposal (tangible impact).”

According to communications trainer Robert Bolton, at least 90 percent of non-blaming messages that describe tangible effects result in the other person trying to resolve the problem.

To skillfully disclose our concerns to the other person, we also need to avoid the use of words and phrases that convey absolutes, such as “never,” “always,” and “absolutely certain.” They will most often trigger a defensive response.

There are times when we need to inquire to uncover the concerns of the other person. Asking questions allows us to focus on our task rather than our disagreement. After we inquire, we need to listen carefully, giving the other person our complete attention.

May your learning be sweet.


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