ANGER, STRESS AND THE SIGNALING TO BACK-OFF TECHNIQUE
While taking my conflict resolution class, Sara, a young woman around thirty, asked the following: “I have been finding many of my new conflict resolution skills very helpful. However, to my dismay, sometimes I’m feeling stressed out and then if I become angry I find my skills fly right out the window. Why do you think that this occurs, and is there anything I can do about this?”
To answer Sara’s question, I first reminded her about what a conflict is according to the DIG Conflict Model we discussed earlier on this blog (see for example, DIG FOR THE CONFLICT):
A conflict exists whenever the following three conditions exist:
- Party A desires an act will occur.
- Party A perceives that another party is likely to act in a manner that interferes with the desire.
- Party A perceives that the other party would be guilty of doing something wrong if he or she carries out the interfering act.
Consider, as an example, the following For Better or for Worse comic strip.
Let’s say that we are looking at this situation from Elly’s perspective. Thus, she is party A. And let’s say the comic strip portrays a situation in which Elly desires that John will be so appreciative of her own unique beauty that he would have no interest in looking at other women, but interfering with this desire, Elly sees John turning his attention away from her and toward another woman. And, finally, let’s say Elly’s shouting occurs because she thinks John is guilty of doing something wrong. If this was indeed how Elly perceived this situation, then all three of the DIG conflict conditions are present (a desire, an interfering act, and the perception of guilt). We would therefore be justified to conclude that Elly has a conflict with John.
When Elly perceives that John is interfering with her desire, we can also say that John’s action is threatening her desire to be appreciated. That is, Elly might think that if John finds the woman that he is ogling attractive, perhaps he finds many other women attractive and at some point he’ll decide to leave me and our kids so he can have affairs with these women? Such threatening concerns are experienced as frustrating or stressful.
The concept of stress is designed to account for the fact that the degree of threat necessary to trigger an emotional reaction can change depending on other threats one has encountered in a relatively short period of time. These other threats, even if relatively minor by themselves, can build up.
The concept of stress is used to describe situations in which it appears that threats can build up to a point that exhausts a person’s ability to cope. As threats build up, they can cause stress which tends to lower the threshold for the triggering of an emotion even when the threats have occurred in a setting that has nothing to do with the threat currently being dealt with. A relatively minor incident that would not result in an angry emotional reaction by itself, may nevertheless lead to a blow-up if it occurs too close in time to other threatening experiences.
Phillip Zimbardo refers to certain situations that build up stress as creating the “Lucifer effect.”
Professor Zimbardo discovered this effect when he utilized a group of Stanford University students to engage voluntarily in an experiment. These students were first selected because they were identified through an extensive battery of tests as being particularly healthy, both physically and emotionally. They were then randomly divided into “guards” and “inmates” and then placed in a mock prison environment. Within a week many of these healthy students were transformed into explosively angry individuals.
What led to this transformation? Those playing the inmates were placed in cramped cells. There were shrieking whistles in the middle of the night disturbing sound sleep. Those who were acting as guards repeatedly yelled insults. When ‘inmates’ expressed anger at how they were being treated, ‘guards’ barked back more insults. Failure to follow rules resulted in degrading punishment.
Before long, inmates furiously resisted and guards became more and more insensitive in shouting insults and instituting punishments. Once physical shoving began to occur, based on humane considerations and legal ones, the experiment was halted well before the researchers had originally planned.
So, I explained to Sara, the woman who asked the question in my conflict resolution class, when you feel stressed out and then find that you can no longer control your anger, this is a pattern most human beings will experience under certain conditions. We all have limited resources to deal with threats and as the threats heat up we begin to lose our cool. When we lose our cool, all that we have left to cope with a challenging situation is our most primitive instincts. Fortunately, there are a few things that we can do to deal effectively with these types of situations. Today, we’ll just focus on one of them—the Signaling to Back-Off Technique. To introduce this idea, let’s begin with a parable.
PARABLE OF MARTY AND LENA
Marty got stuck at work and so he called his girlfriend, Lena, to let her know he was going to be late for their date.
When he finally arrived, he was already irritated about how his boss had treated him and he found himself becoming a little annoyed when Lena started to raise her voice about how late he had been. He took a deep breath, and then replied, “I understand why you are upset. I was really very late and naturally you are very frustrated.”
Lena then looked at his clothes and complained that he was not wearing a tie.
“I didn’t think a tie was necessary for the party we’re going to,” Marty replied. “Next time we go to a party, I’ll check with you before I pick out my outfit.”
As they left the house to go to the party, before getting into his car, Lena paused. “You didn’t have your car washed and you knew we were going to a party!” she complained. “It’s filthy.”
“Lena, I had a rough day at work, and now, in the last five minutes you criticized me three times—first, about my being late, then about not wearing a tie, and now, about not washing the car. Usually I’m very interested in your criticisms. It helps me to become a better person. But for the rest of the evening I’d like you to hold off on any more.”
“Don’t give me that!” Lena hollered. “You didn’t wash the lousy car! What’s wrong with you?!”
“Lena, I know you’re going to be disappointed, but I’ve decided to spend the evening alone. I’ll call you in a few days and if you’re up to discussing what happened this evening, we’ll do it then. I’m sorry.” Then Marty got into his car and drove away with Lena still yelling.
Notice that in this Marty and Lena parable, Marty, after being criticized three times in a short period of time attempts to sail away from the Region of Anger by gently asking Lena to hold off on any more criticism for the rest of the evening. We will call this the “Signaling to Back-Off Technique.” Although this fails to work for Marty in this parable, the Signaling to Back-Off Technique has the potential to be highly effective. It works best in an ongoing relationship, although I have seen it work well with people who hardly know each other. The best way to set this up is to discuss this technique with the other person at a time when both of you are not in an angry mood. You might say to the other party something like:
Sometimes I begin to get really upset about something you are saying. I know that it’s important for me to hear your point of view and I do want to hear what you have to say. But there are times when I’m in no condition to give you a fair hearing on a particular topic. At such times, it would help me a great deal if I could give you a simple signal for you to back off for a while. I’ll make sure you’ll get your opportunity to have your full say on a topic before too long—almost always within a week. But I sometimes require a little time to get my act together first. Would you mind helping me out in this way?
If the other party agrees to the Signaling to Back-Off Technique, and I have found that most people do, together you can decide on a signal. A friend might say something to another friend like, “Please give me a little time to think about this.” A wife might wish to use with her husband the phrase, “Darling, let’s discuss this later.” I know one couple who just uses the phrase, “Back off, please.” This strikes me as a bit abrupt, but it seems to work for them.
In the Marty and Lena parable, when Lena refuses to hold off on anymore negative criticism for a while, Marty decides to leave rather than listening to any more insults. I know some couples who disagree with Marty’s approach. “He should have stayed there and had it out with her!” some say. “After a few more minutes of shouting back and forth, the whole thing would have been over and they could have ended up having a good time at the party.”
There are couples who do successfully use the quick shouting argument approach.
I know one couple who has been using it for over forty years and it seems to have worked well enough. True, it’s a little embarrassing for their friends who sometimes happen to be around when the couple starts going at each other, but the whole bout is usually over in less than five minutes and then all seems to be fine. If this indeed has been working for you, I certainly won’t be calling the Anger Management Police to have you arrested.
Whereas the quick shouting approach may work well for some people all of the time, others find that they sometimes reach a point at which they determine that it would be best to indeed call a time out. We do it in many sports for four reasons. We want to take some time to catch our breath, to avoid an incident exploding into violence, to think about what has just been happening, and to formulate a plan to go forward. It is for the same reasons why we call time outs in an anger arousing situation.
 P. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, New York, Random House, 2007.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.