By Robin Levick, MFT
Conflict is inevitable and unavoidable in relationships. Conflict arises when people in a relationship are not in alignment, and perfect alignment is a fantasy. When the misalignment is uncomfortable for one or more persons in the relationship, communication is necessary to reconcile differences. Anger is a part of this process. Anger signals that something needs to change, and helps us mobilize the energy needed to make change. Many people think that it’s not okay to feel angry, or that they can’t be angry and assertive at the same time. In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with getting angry, or telling people that you are angry and why.
Assertive communication of anger requires skill, and it doesn’t always have the desired effect. It is a huge challenge to continue communicating assertively when the other person is not, or when it is not immediately working. It’s more effective at that point to take a break than to resort to an aggressive attacks or a passive withdrawal.
Assertive communication of anger is non-attacking, clear, and direct. Also, the speaker takes responsibility for their feelings while describing what has happened. Assertive communication of anger keeps you in contact with others. It can still be uncomfortable, but it can facilitate change, growth, and intimacy.
Communicating anger aggressively can sometimes feel powerful, but it usually has disempowering consequences. Being aggressive might get you your way, or it might make others even more rigid and inflexible in their positions. Either way, aggressive communication is more likely to hurt, scare, and push people away, and aggressive communicators then have to contend with consequent feelings of guilt, shame, and loneliness.
Anger that is communicated passively can be ignored by others. If anger is communicated with withdrawal, then there is little chance for compromise and repair. If anger comes out sideways, through sarcasm, resentment, or contempt, it doesn’t help either person understand what has happened or make changes. Passive communicators are left dealing with feelings of resentment and loneliness.
Empowered communication of anger isn’t so much about doing it the right way, it’s about speaking your truth in a way that is most likely to be effective for you. It’s less about protecting others from the emotional impact of your communication, and more getting your needs met. So how do you communicate anger assertively and powerfully? Here are a few tips:
First regulate your body, then think of what to say.
All the communication skill in the world won’t help you if your are so dysregulated that you can’t think. The more upset you are, the more urgently your body is telling you to make a change. Unfortunately, the more upset you are, the less likely you will be able to communicate assertively. Turn your attention inward and notice what is happening in your body. Where do you feel the anger? Where are you tense? Just how elevated is your heart rate? Are you able to take full breaths? Are you able to think clearly? What do you need to do to get regulated enough to communicate from an empowered, grounded place?
Be aware of and communicate the other emotions you are also feeling in addition to anger.
If you are being attacked by a stranger or a wild animal, anger is probably the only thing you need to communicate. You can leave the fear you also feel out of it. But if you are angry with someone that you have any type of relationship with, your anger is most likely paired with or covering up another, more vulnerable feeling. Sharing those feelings as well (hurt, sadness, disappointment, betrayal, etc.) gives the person the opportunity to feel compassionate for you while also learning that you are angry. If you only communicate your anger and not your hurt, the other person will more likely be defensive than caring.
Describe what has happened and why it is not okay with you, but take responsibility for your own feelings.
This is a subtle difference that can have a big impact. In the examples that follow, notice that there is a crucial difference between saying what you feel and why, or blaming the other person for your feelings:
Empowered: I am angry with you for doing that.
Disempowered: You make me angry when you do that.
Empowered: I feel angry when you speak to me this way.
Disempowered: The way you are speaking to me makes me angry.
Empowered: I am angry that the dishes are not done. I thought we agreed that you would do those.
Disempowered: Why didn’t you do the dishes? You make me so angry.