How do you deal with the anger of others? Be angry back? Run away? Plot your revenge? It certainly doesn’t feel nice to be on the receiving end of anger – whether it’s an angry outburst or something more insidious like the ‘silent treatment’.
An increasing number of clients are coming to my practice because they are aware of the impact their behaviour is having on their relationships as well as their own emotional well-being.
Anger is one way to respond to any difficult encounter. Those of us who come across as aggressive often have low self-esteem. We seek to belittle the thoughts, values and abilities of others. We cannot afford to consider another’s point of view because all we care about is beating the other person. We see competition as a ‘threat’. We need to prove our superiority by putting others down. Faced with threatening circumstances we respond with an outright attack. Our compulsive over-reaction often alienates those around us. People we attack may harbour resentment towards us but feel reluctant to express this directly for fear of more of the same treatment.
This silence means we are sometimes unaware of how much we intimidate others. The reality is that we are not easy to be around and deep down, we probably don’t like ourselves very much.
Sounds like you?
Assertiveness is the opposite of anger. We probably all know someone who is assertive – they don’t stamp or shout they just quietly and firmly say what they have to say. They argue only when they feel the need. If challenged they focus on the argument rather than make personal attacks. In the face of angry, often abusive outbursts, the assertive person restates their case. This person will not withdraw if they believe in what they are saying. This person realises that it is not always possible to avoid conflict. This person does not shout and waits until the shouting stops – which is a very difficult thing to do when anger is being unleashed.
If the client reflects critically, they come to realise they have often responded in ways which have fuelled the other person’s anger. I encourage people to consciously step back and think before they react. The rewards for doing so can be great. People who behave in this way – keeping one eye on the bigger picture and the other focused on the here and now – tend to get their way in the end. It can be a long and sometimes frustrating journey. Change is achievable.
In my experience assertiveness is one of the most important skills we can possess.
Luckily, as it is a skill it can be learnt. How do we do this? Watch out for those who are really good at assertiveness. They are usually quiet but firm individuals. Of course, if people have never been assertive, or, as is often the case, been silenced within a relationship for many years, whether at home or work, they need help in developing – or re-discovering - this skill. As with anything new, it takes time. Unlearning old habits is often very challenging. It’s hard to behave assertively when we are feeling anything but. That’s okay: in time we become the way we act. It is important to keep going.
Like any change, there is usually a cost to pay. As we become more assertive, we may have to say goodbye to people who are now holding us back. And that’s okay too.
That’s not being angry. That’s being assertive.