“Are you going to vote for the new school facility plan, Marc?”
“No, Phil. It calls for combining the two high schools in our town so that there will be nearly 2,000 students in the combined school. I prefer small schools. I say, keep them small, keep them personal.”
The next day. “Hi Marc, you still going to vote against the combining the two high school plan?”
“You know, Phil, I’m hesitant to discuss anything with you. You get angry and you begin to put me down and you start with the glares….”
“Oh, don’t be a baby, Marc. Don’t you know that anger is a good thing. Research shows it can make us push on towards our goals in the face of problems and barriers. And hiding anger in relationships can be detrimental. When you hide your anger, your partner doesn’t know they’ve done something wrong, so they keep doing it. That doesn’t do your relationship any good. There’s also some evidence that anger can be useful as a negotiation strategy. If people see that you are angry, studies show that the other party will make more concessions.”
Now, it is not hard to understand why Phil, and others, might make such statements about anger. After all, if you go on the internet and glance at some of the articles that come up in search engines when we insert in the search box the words, “benefits of anger,” people can get a similar impression as Phil. There is, for example, “The Upside of Anger: 6 Benefits of Getting Mad,” or “When Anger is a Plus,” etc. However, a careful reading of the actual research studies lead one to dramatically different conclusions.
The two biggest mistakes that people make when interpreting the research on this topic is, 1. not taking a good look at what the expression of anger is being compared with, and, 2. not noticing how broadly the term anger is defined. Let’s focus quickly on these two types of mistakes.
Not Taking a Good Look at What the Expression of Anger is Being Compared With
If people only told their partners in their relationship what they feel he or she did wrong when they become angry, then there probably are times when the expression of anger might do more good than never saying anything. In such studies, comparing the expression of anger with saying nothing is, in my opinion, potentially misleading. People can learn to provide negative criticism in a far more helpful way than what we typically call anger (see my post titled Providing Negative Criticism: Five Levels of Maturity).
For the negotiation studies that found that people who became angry did fairly well compared to some other subjects who did not become angry, again let’s look at what “becoming angry” was compared to. Those who didn’t become angry really didn’t care all that much about whether or not they obtained the reward. They did make some halfhearted effort to achieve it, but then quickly gave in. Those folks who were confronted with someone who was angry and ended up settling for something that was less than what they would have settled for if they were confronted by someone who was not angry, also had little of real value at stake. They were also given extremely few options to use in the negotiation. Under these types of situations, a person might prefer to give the other party, if he or she becomes angry, a little more than they might otherwise do rather than to put up any longer with what felt to them like abuse.
What would have happened if the study would have compared not only a group of people who portrayed anger during the negotiation process with a group who didn’t, but also looked at a group of individuals who were well trained to respond to negotiation situations with “challenge?”
In brief, challenge has us:
- Working up a heightened sense of determination to achieve our desire
- Meanwhile, we consider the twin beliefs that the stress we have been experiencing is normal and fulfillment is not found in easy comfort, security, and routine, but rather in the continual growth in wisdom through what is learned from negative and positive experiences of an active, changing life
- Then, we take a deep breath and resolve to get down to the task at hand—carrying out a two-step process.
Step 1. Consider if the most obvious resolution is sufficient.
In such cases in which you become convinced that the resolution that you came up with poses no serious risks, it makes sense to you, and you feel comfortable with it, the only job you have left is to carry out your plan with charm, courage, and determination. However, if the most obvious solution does pose a serious risk, or you just don’t feel comfortable with it for any reason, it’s time to go to Step 2.
Step 2. Carrying out a more complete decision process.
There are numerous benefits that occur when we learn how to transform anger into challenge. Just becoming angry is, of course, far easier in the short term, but excellent studies demonstrate that those who learn to respond to difficult situations with challenge, in the long run do far better than either just becoming angry or making halfhearted efforts.
Moreover, a great way to learn how to transform anger into challenge is to read the “Cool Steve” trilogy, a series of three novels that portrays a coming of age tale that takes psychological suspense to new heights and sophisticated humor to new lows. Struggling to find respect, our hero faces many of the same struggles we all faced while growing up, and a few not so typical ones as well. Mistakes are made, but in the end, the value of challenge is portrayed in a manner you will long remember.
And so, either to respond with anger or not to respond with anger are not really our only two choices. Not responding with anger actually involves many different choices and one of them, transforming anger to challenge, is one of them, and a distinctly better choice than giving free range to anger.
Not Noticing How Broadly the Term Anger is Defined
In seeking to understand studies that seem to suggest that anger can be beneficial, it helps to look at how anger is defined in those studies. In one study that seems to suggest anger is helpful, the authors make a distinction between constructive anger and destructive anger. They then explain that it is constructive anger that can be beneficial. What they call constructive anger is responding to frustration without name calling or shouting, but with determination to achieve a goal. This sound to me more like challenge than anger.
In another study that talks about the benefits of anger, it was actually mild frustration that was beneficial in increasing motivation to achieve a goal. Despite this, as the authors wrote up the study results they claimed that frustration was a lot like anger, and therefore the results may suggest that anger is beneficial. A quick glance at this study’s results can mislead people because some people who become frustrated don’t begin to yell at people around them, nor do they start to throw insults and threats at them. They may, instead, feel challenged to vigorously respond in a constructive, problem solving manner, and it is these people who may be the ones responding in a more beneficial way than those who act in a manner that is clearly anger. Calling anger, frustration, and challenge all forms of anger, can confuse people into thinking all expressions of anger are beneficial. It would be far better to use words that clearly distinguishes these experiences so that people would be less likely to end up exaggerating the benefits of anger.
OK, so those are some thoughts to ponder for this week. I hope you’ll join us again sometime next week for another presentation on dealing with anger, conflict and respect.
 The value of this attitude is discussed in: S. R. Maddi, D. M. Khoshaba, R. H. Harvey, M Fazel, & N Resurreccion, 2011, “The Personality Construct of Hardiness, V: Relationships with the Construction of Existential Meaning in Life,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 51(3), 369-388.
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 intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.