I have to confess to being fascinated by anger. As a younger person I shied when I met it in others, and found I rarely experienced it in myself. What I’ve come to appreciate is the positive role this feeling force can have in our lives, if we can learn to perceive and appreciate its power, and use its energy skilfully.
Anger arises when we interpret something as ‘wrong’. The power of anger is clarity, enabling us to act in the world, take a position and make a statement about who we are.
At the moment we become angry our body is flooded with adrenaline. Energy resources of unfathomable dimensions are mobilised and we are readied for action; the impossible is made possible and the undesired is moved out of the way.
This 11 minute video of student Emma Gonzalez speaking following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, US is a remarkable illustration of how the power of anger can be positively focused, bringing us strongly into connection with our personal agency for change.
The power of anger can create – and destroy – great things.
In its creative form, our anger leads to helpful action, opening up new possibilities and clear paths forward. In its destructive form, we may find ourselves out of control, believing that our misery has been created by someone else and blaming them for all our suffering.
Where in fact we have no influence or control over a situation, it is more likely that we are the authors of our own suffering. By erroneously generating the power of anger (with the interpretation ‘this is wrong’) instead of a more appropriate power, perhaps sadness (with the interpretation ‘this is unfortunate’), we find ourselves running up against inner and outer walls and spinning our wheels. In extreme cases, we destroy or injure things and people as the energy of our misapplied anger forces its way into action. And there’s a personal cost; when anger builds in our system we can experience emotional blockages, anxiety, depression and even physical disease.
‘Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.’ ~ Mark Twain
In organisational life, how anger shows up is significantly influenced by the prevailing organisational culture. In male-dominated manufacturing environments I’ve found anger to be very directly expressed, in words, tone, gestures and body posture. This is helpful to the extent that the person’s position is visible and understood, unhelpful when it tips over in to aggression. By contrast I’ve seen anger manifest as seething silence in the bountiful context of an investment management firm where people found it impossible to explicitly take a position contrary to the ‘smile every day, can-do’ vibe of their organisational culture. Yet without visibility of a person’s position on the issue at hand we are powerless to work productively with the associated energy.
So how, as leaders and agents of change, can we best work with the energy unleashed by anger, meeting it with skill and grace? How can we create the positive outcomes we are seeking and avoid the negative fallout that might be only too familiar to us?
‘If you allow compassion to spring from your heart, the fire of anger will die right away.’ ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist teacher
Here are some suggestions:
- Find your own comfort with other people’s experience of anger. Avoid getting caught up in it, or hiding from it. Rather, hold a space in which it can be expressed.
- Design communication systems for organisational change with great care. Anger often goes together with confusion. Provide multiple opportunities for people to develop their knowledge and understanding about what is happening, and make it possible for people to have their questions, issues and concerns genuinely heard.
- Be willing to listen to the person who is angry. Listen and do not react. Your work here is not to listen for the purpose of judging, criticising, analysing, explaining or defending. Your work is to listen only to help the other person express herself and find some relief from her suffering. Do your best to practice compassionate listening.
- Remember, legitimising people’s feelings of anger is not the same as tolerating bad behaviour. The power of anger asks: what do I want? Work with people to find the clear expression of what they want and pay attention to what is happening when their energy becomes destructive. Anger in itself is not good or bad, only the intention that directs it.
- If you’re working with people who in fact cannot influence or control their situation, help them to understand that anger is simply not the appropriate response and work with them to access the power of the appropriate alternative. Consider what opportunities people have to mourn the loss of what they have valued so highly and access the power of their sadness. Or help them to access the power of the fear they might understandably be experiencing.
To learn more about the misapplication of feelings and the emotional turbulence that can result, read Vivian Dittmar’s book The Power of Feelings: A Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence.
For further information and support for dealing with anger – your own and others’ – visit Mind.