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In Stress and Coping

Three tips for listening to anger

Have you ever wondered why you get angry? According to psychologist Daniel Goleman,

… emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us.

Goleman argues that anger causes blood to flow to your hands, making it easier for you to strike an enemy or hold a weapon. Your heart rate speeds up and a rush of hormones, including adrenaline, to create a surge of energy strong enough to take “vigorous action.” In this way, anger has been ingrained into your brain to protect us.

Let’s think of anger like an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is hidden below the surface of the water. Similarly, when you are angry, there are usually other emotions hidden beneath the surface. It’s easy to see your anger but can be difficult to see the underlying feelings your anger is protecting.

Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.

Susan David, Ph.D.

This idea emphasizes that there is something more below the surface of your anger. Anger is often described as a “secondary emotion” because people tend to use it to protect their own raw, vulnerable, overwhelming feelings, yet anger is also primarily one of the six “basic emotions” – anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise.

Anger is simply felt by everyone at one point or another, and it’s completely valid as its own emotion. However, anger doesn’t come out of nowhere—there are usually other emotions or feelings that spur the anger, and that may lie beneath it. 

Learning to recognize anger as both a basic, valid emotion and as a protector of your raw feelings can be incredibly powerful. It can lead to healing conversations that allow couples as well as children and parents to understand each other better.

THREE tips for listening to anger

One of the most difficult things about listening to your child or your lover’s anger, especially when it’s directed at you, is that you become defensive. You want to fight back as your own anger boils to the surface. If this happens, you get in a heated verbal battle which leaves both parties feeling misunderstood and hurt. Here are three powerful tips for listening to anger.

1. Don’t take it personally

Your partner or child’s anger is usually not about you. It’s about their underlying primary feelings. To not taking this personally takes a high level of emotional intelligence. One of the ways you do this is by becoming curious of why they’re angry. This approach allows you to see the raw emotions they are protecting and actually brings you closer together.

2. Don’t EVER tell your partner to “calm down”

The goal here is not to change or fix your partner’s emotions but rather to sit on their anger iceberg with them. Communicate that you understand and accept their feelings. When you do this well, your partner’s anger will subside, and the primary emotion will rise to the surface.

3. Identify the obstacle

Anger is often caused by an obstacle blocking a goal. The bottom line is that people feel angry for a reason. It indicates other emotions, but it is also a valid emotion on its own. It needs to be validated. It’s your job to understand and sit with your partner in it. By doing so, you will not only help them to understand their anger, but you will become closer to them in the process.

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