Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Anger: A Springboard To Communication

January 15, 2001

"I was angry with my friend

I told my wrath, my wrath did end

I told it not, my wrath did grow." - William Blake, A Poison Tree

- Is the telling of wrath enough? Perhaps. In the case of grief and loss, verbalizing anger is a part of the healing process.

Preoccupation with the anger-provoking incident diminishes when we are able to identify and express our feelings. Just as too much, too intense or too frequent of an expression of anger is destructive, so too is the suppression of anger destructive.

Blocked anger leads to self-doubt, guilt and depression. People who suppress anger are often resentful, passive-aggressive and irritable. A habit of avoiding conflict lowers self-confidence.

Not only are healthy people less angry, they suppress anger less. Their anger is expressed in a timely and moderate way. By the telling of wrath, the process of "letting go" begins and, sometimes, is even complete.

- By the telling of wrath, did the angry person learn something about him or herself? Beneath our defenses and logic lies our unvarnished assumptions and expectations. It is possible that once the anger was expressed, Blake's protagonist saw how ridiculous it was to be that angry, or that he or she was wrong.

Are we surprised by our anger? Anger reveals us to ourselves. In the privacy of regret and hindsight, do we take stock of ourselves and examine the cause of our anger? In communicating anger to others, we are also communicating to ourselves - if we pay attention. Anger can lead to soul-searching.

- When we told our wrath, did our friend show willingness to listen and respond? In Blake’s poem, we don't know what kind of dialogue took place after the wrath was expressed. An angry person wants change. Anger is an attempt to break through and communicate about important changes that are needed.

Anger can be a prelude to greater intimacy and closeness if constructive dialogue and change occur. The angry person provides the fuel that ignites the fires of change.

Just as our anger reveals us to ourselves, it reveals us to our friend. Our defenses are down. If this were a poker game, we'd be revealing our hole card. The issue is on the table, whether we want it to be or not, whether our logic holds up or not. For the sake of change, we are willing to expose ourselves. Expressing anger reveals our pain, frustration and assumptions.

What should a friend do? The best way to deal with an angry person is to be a good listener. Ask questions. Reflect feelings. Summarize their main points. Get to the bottom of the anger. Find out what this outburst is all about.

Do it in a caring way. Don't respond right away with your counterpoints or arguments. Keep turning over his or her cards and see where the anger comes from. If an angry person is being listened to, it is hard to stay angry. If he or she feels understood, then it is easier to be a good listener.

The friend, now knowing more what the real issues are, takes his or her turn to respond. A dialogue can begin, this time without anger.

Each can step out of their self-centered shoes and also learn that each has a legitimate and understandable point of view. Problems can be solved, understandings can be reached and an appreciation of each other's unique history and differences can be realized.

Before the telling of wrath, did the angry person become a listener first? An angry person doesn't have to explode or be out of control to express anger. The most important factor is goodwill. If an angry person isn't ready to mend the relationship, then their anger needs to be saved until the desire is there.

If the angry person puts a hold on his or her feelings and listens first, then a potential angry response by the friend may be short-circuited.

The angry person should listen until he or she can empathize with something the friend has said. It is hard to become angry when a person feels he or she has just been listened to and been cared about.

Now it is time to turn the tables. The angry person then shares his or her anger and ties their ideas into their friend's point of view as much as possible. The dialogue should connect the two differing points of view into one overall picture. "I see where you are coming from, but this is how I see it."

The two parties are ready to negotiate for change. The power between them is brought into balance. By giving examples of one’s own past struggles and inadequacies helps the friend acknowledge and disclose his or her own struggles.

In their harmony, they affirm each other's self-worth. In their differences and disagreements, they discover even more their own identity and come to appreciate even more the uniqueness of their friend’s experience.

Anger, if handled right, can turn into intimacy. The wrath ends. Friends remain friends.