Communication Skills for When We’re Angry
 
 “Why do you ALWAYS???”
“You NEVER…”
“You need to stop…”
“You need to start…”
“OMG! What is wrong with you? What are you thinking?”
 
Sound familiar? That’s because we tend to focus on others and get annoyed at the things our families and loved ones do and then let them know about it in an aggressive, attacking manner. We do this and we might be thinking this will change things. It won’t. As a matter of fact, it will usually make things worse! We tend to have the same fights, the same patterns, over and over and that will continue until one of the people involved changes their responses. What if that was you?
 
You might be the kind of person who starts to have a “tone”, is sarcastic, raises your voice, or yells, and that creates a reaction in the other person so that they get defensive and angry too. The bickering can continue for hours or a full out argument can erupt with harsh words that can really wound. Or your family member might respond to your anger by withdrawing, shutting down, not talking or actually leaving the room or the house.
 
Sometimes we talk about these behaviors as being aggressive or passive in response to conflict. Or we might be passive-aggressive, which is when we don’t “use our words” but do slam cabinets and doors or do what was requested but do it badly so we are still communicating our anger but not in a direct manner. We humans all have our defenses and we tend to fall into them when triggered by a situation where we feel mistreated, disrespected, or threatened in some way. These protective responses have developed over the years, usually learned in as children in our families. We all try to figure out how to respond in a way that might best keep us safe from emotional or physical harm. Our defense system is doing its best to protect “us”, not others, so we lash out, then might feel badly about the hurt we’ve caused and apologize, only to do the whole thing over again the next time we are triggered.
 
What to do? Here are a few suggestions to think about. They are easy to say, harder to do, yet they can hold the key to learning how to stay calmer in an argument.
 
1.    Take a few deep breaths. Nothing works better to help calm that alarm system in the brain, the emotional center that gets triggered by other’s comments and behaviors. The physical reactions of anger - heart pounding, fists clenched, jaw clenched, heat rising are a great way to try to catch yourself before you lose your temper and taking a few slow breaths sends a message to the emotional center of the brain to relax and allows us to think more clearly again.
 
2.    Try to slow down. If possible, don’t say anything until you can reduce the emotional reaction. If you must talk, be very careful. Maybe ask for a minute, walk away, count to ten or more. Our brain’s emotional center works faster than our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain at the top of our forehead, and if we react quickly when triggered we are coming completely from an emotional part that wants to protect us and may not care or even like the other person in that moment. Slowing down and giving ourselves time to tap into our more mature, reasoning, rational, and compassionate part of the brain can make a huge difference in what happens.
 
3.    When you do talk, use “I statements”, meaning, take your focus off the other person and focus instead on what you are feeling/thinking and express it using “I”. What are you hearing yourself saying to yourself? See if you can really listen inside and then when you do talk, try to talk FOR the emotion instead of FROM it, or for the angry part instead of from it. An example would be to say “I’m really upset that you did not tell me about the plans for tonight” instead of “Why the hell didn’t you tell me? You always do this!!” Or, “I don’t believe you”, instead of “You’re lying!” Notice that when talking FOR the anger we tend to naturally use “I” statements, taking ownership of our feelings, while when talking FROM it, we point the finger at the other person, they are the problem, and use “You”, which is more likely to land as an attack on the other person and almost always guarantees that they will become defensive or withdraw.
 
4.    Notice what might be going on behind your words and feelings. You feel angry or upset. What is the deeper emotion you might want to convey? Even though you feel the anger, is there a chance you are also anxious, worried about them or the situation and it is coming out as only anger? Are you really feeling hurt and it is being expressed as anger? This is very common and very human. Our defenses don’t talk about our fear or hurt, they jump to defend us so we won’t feel hurt or scared anymore but in doing so, they can inadvertently cause the other person to feel under attack. If you can try to identify the deeper feelings, and have the courage to talk about them, you would be taking a huge step forward in reducing your angry responses toward others. Imagine a parent telling a child they were really scared for them when they were home late instead of just yelling at them in anger? Saying, “I feel angry because I love you and I was worried.” The relationship could be much closer as it would create the emotional safety children and teens need to feel safe to open up to a parent.
 
These are just a few strategies for being able to stay calmer when upset and to feel and express anger in a more productive way. Ideally, we start to realize that anger is a mixture of emotions and start being able to explain our more vulnerable feelings instead of just lashing out, pointing the finger at the other person, and having the same argument over and over. The more we can understand ourselves, own our reactions, and explain ourselves to our loved ones, instead of attacking them, the better a chance there is for closer, more loving relationships and a greater sense of inner calm and self-respect in the bargain.  
 
Barbara Howard, LCPC, CADC