Some of the biggest challenges we face on a day-to-day basis is communicating with others. It’s hard enough to be aware of what we are thinking and feeling, let alone communicating what that is effectively to others. When we are irritated, annoyed, frustrated, angry or enraged (all gradients along the spectrum of anger) it becomes even more challenging.
It’s wise to take a moment to ask what the anger is saying to us. Anger often means there is something unfair, unjust or not right about a situation. This could be what a person said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do or sometimes it’s just about an unfair situation. The information anger gives us is actually helpful and valuable. However, when we communicate in and with anger the results are often poor. How do we navigate this?
The conundrum of anger is that we need to both validate our anger as a sign that a boundary has been crossed for us and at the same time we need to work with anger in a way that does not enter our communication with others in a harmful way.
It’s important to understand why angry communication is harmful. Essentially, through anger we are attempting to change a situation through force or it causes us to withdraw completely and not attempt to solve the problem (fight or flight). In both cases, anger assumes the problem is 100% outside of us – it’s the other that is the problem (or the situation). It does not consider what is happening inside of us as part of the problem.
Mindfulness is a very well suited tool for handling anger and can be used to both recognize anger in ourselves and to respond to the situation in a skillful way. The key to a mindfulness approach to anger is a shift of focus. Instead of focusing only on the outside, we focus equally on what’s happening inside of us – and we communicate from this place of equanimity.
Let’s use an example of a person in your life forgetting to do something important to you that they promised they would do. This person is important to you and you believe you would never do the same thing to them. You feel anger coming up and this is made worse when they respond in a way that doesn’t recognize what they’ve done.
Anger in this example would typically focus on what the person has done, and it would be directed toward making them both regret their behavior and change it.
Angry communication might contain messages such as, “you always do this to me; you don’t listen to me; you don’t respect/care about me; you let me down; you disappoint me; I can’t rely on you; etc.”
With mindfulness, we know what the other person has done and we also notice the anger coming up in us. We notice the physical signs of anger: a racing heart, shallow breath, a surge of energy. And noticing these physical signs we pause. We note our anger internally, “I know I’m really angry right now”. We take a few conscious breaths which allows the breath to deepen.
At this point if we recognize that our anger includes a strong desire to punish or change the other, we might tell the person that we need some time and would like to speak to them later. Or through our pause and mindful attention in the moment, we create enough awareness in us to speak to the person then.
Mindful communication will focus on how you are feeling and how the person’s actions affect you. It might sound something like: “I’m feeling really angry right now. The promise you made to me was very important to me and I feel like you haven’t acknowledged that. I wonder what you are thinking and feeling about this situation? I really want to feel respected by you.”
Mindful Communication Tips
- Focus on what you feel and say it with “I” statements – “I feel…..”. The opposite of this is “you” statements- “You always……”
- Tell the person what it was that has made you feel that way. Don’t assume they know.
- Tell the person what you want.
- Ask the person what they are thinking and feeling.
Mindfulness recognizes that in any conflict there are at least two parties involved and therefore both parties are responsible for a solution. By communicating in a skillful, non-reactive way, the anger can be used positively as a signal that an important conversation about what is happening is needed.
Written by John Woychuk, MA, CCC, Counsellor at J. Woychuk Counselling and Psychotherapy; www.jwoychukcounselling.ca; firstname.lastname@example.org