Some years ago I went on a brilliant course with the not very catchy title of “Dealing with Difficult Behaviour in the Library.” At the time, I was working in a community library on one of South London’s least lovely estates, where we fought running battles with gangs of teenagers.
One of the things I learned on the course was some simple phrases that I’ve found useful in dealing with all sorts of difficult situations. One of these was for use with a person who was irate, even aggressive. What she warned us never to say (unless we wanted to get hit) was, “Calm down!” Instead she recommended the simple sentence, “I can see you’re very angry.”
Recently I wrote about Descartes’ view on anger, and the post was orientated towards how we can own, manage and transform the anger within ourselves. But lately, circumstances have made me consider how to meet the anger of other people, especially those close to us. Of course, if we encounter a violent or aggressive stranger, the sensible thing may be to avoid them. But so often it’s our closest friends, lovers, work colleagues whose anger vented against us leaves us hurt, confused or angry ourselves.
In Marshall Rosenburg’s theory of Nonviolent Communication, anger, like other feelings, is understood as a message that expresses a need. On one level this seems a trivial claim: we get angry when service is slow in a restaurant, for example, because we’re hungry and need to eat. But there are other, higher needs, in particular the need to be respected, to be recognised and accepted.
Psychologist Dorothy Rowe, in her manual on depression Breaking the Bonds, also holds that anger has a meaning, and that meaning is, “I am here, and I have the right to be here, and I will survive.” So this sense implies that the person experiencing anger feels that these three aspects of our existence are threatened or denied.
Aristotle saw anger as a revenge-seeking reaction against disrespect or belittling:
Let anger be defined as desire, accompanied by distress, for apparent retaliation because of an apparent slight that was directed, without justification, against oneself or those near to one.
According to Aristotle, when one person belittles another, they actualise an opinion that the person is worthless. Belittling can come in three forms: contempt, spite and insult.
So how might this help us cope better with our angry friend, our angry child or our angry lover? If we are not going to add insult to injury, we could first show that we acknowledge what they are feeling. That’s why just saying “I can see that you are angry” can begin to alleviate a tense situation, while saying “calm down” just makes things worst. But if we are to go further, and help our angry friend to see past their overwhelming sense of being squished, we have be with them, feel with them as they themselves look within to ask “what does she really need right now?”
It’s undoubtedly a tall order. Some people are so bound up in their own needs that they’re hard to cope with. Often their anger, even when not vented at us directly, elicits our own, born of our very human instinct for self-defence which goes into gear in frightening situations. But maybe we can learn to take the other’s anger a little less personally, to open up just a crack to seeing it as a poorly articulated request for recognition, for support, to be heard – to be loved even.
This doesn’t mean I have to be the angry person’s punchbag. We can also express how it feels for us to be shouted at or insulted. We can also draw boundaries, insisting that there are behaviours we will not tolerate.
But – and I’m still experimenting with this myself – it seems that when we try to give compassionate attention to our friend and their anger, just as with our own, this light causes it to soften, and open communication returns.
Sometimes we have to listen to be heard.