I work with the public and am a clearinghouse for complaints, so I deal with a lot of angry people. Sometimes I’m the target, other times I’m paid to listen. More often I’m the go-between or messenger, charged with trying to broker or influence a solution.
Whatever my role, and however legitimate the frustrations, I have learned to muster a special brand of fortitude, humor and patience to hold my own amid the heat.
Personally, I am less angry as I age and less enthralled with the personal power that I thought my temper gave me. I am quicker to make amends when I am wrong and more willing to step aside in a disagreement, to speak my piece and then yield the last word. I once judged that behavior as passive.
And so, in the course of re-examining my relationship with this misunderstood emotion, I talked with anger expert and mediator Jeanne Zimmer, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center in St. Paul.
How do you engage with angry people without becoming angry yourself?
“You have to be empathetic without taking on their emotions. Just to pick up the phone in our office, you have to have the 30-hour training. The person on the other end of that phone is angry. You need to listen both for what they’re saying and the emotions underneath it.
“People can’t move to logical problem-solving till those emotions are addressed. Mediators will say: ‘It sounds like you’re really hurt. This must be hard.’ Then the angry person can move forward.”
Years ago I was stunned to hear anger described as the flip side of fear. What have you learned about anger?
“Anger is a secondary emotion. Shame or fear is often underlying anger. Think of primary and secondary colors. What is really going on?
“Somebody comes in and says: ‘Your dog is barking all the time. I want you to move.’ What’s underneath that? The interest may be my sleep, or fear of dogs.”
What is difficult about this work?
“As a mediator your job is to listen and absorb. Self-care is important. You don’t want to take that emotion with you. If you can’t be fully present to the person on the other end of the line, let it go to voicemail and take a walk.”
A handful of the angry people I encounter strike me as mean-spirited. They’re “beside themselves,” to use a phrase that I am only now coming to understand.
“People behave in conflict as they saw growing up. Many of us weren’t taught good conflict-resolution skills. How did the family of origin deal with anger? Did they scream and yell? Give you the silent treatment? Send you to bed and everything was magically OK in the morning? You tend to do what you know.
“If you learn sarcasm, for example, how do you change it? The response is not hard-wired; it takes intention to change it, and that’s harder than it looks. It’s much easier to call 911 or sue somebody than it is to sit down and work things out.”
I used to love the rush that self-righteousness gave me. So what is the motivation to change?
“Unresolved conflict affects your health. It can take a mental and physical toll. Conflict distorts who people are. It takes us out of our place of homeostasis, our place of balance.
“Also we’re not at our best when we’re in conflict. You don’t see people as they are or how they see themselves. If you told this handful of so-called difficult people what your perceptions are — that they seem unfair or unkind — they’d be surprised.”
What is the science — or art — of mediation?
“People come in and don’t talk to each other. They talk to the mediator. When you summarize what someone else is saying, you’re helping them to be heard in a neutral voice. People need to be acknowledged, recognized and heard. That anger is: ‘You’re missing something!’ And they will go back to that again and again till they feel heard.”
How has this work helped you deal with anger personally?
“I am angry about something in my life right now. I’m hurt and I’m frustrated. How do I articulate that? And, I can’t change what’s going on. There’s a powerlessness.
“It helps to describe what the anger is like, how it feels. Then, how do you take care of yourself when you’re angry? Do you like to be left alone or to talk about it? It’s that meta-communication: How do we help each other? Then, you have to be brave enough to confront it.”
Various men over the years have called me strident, emotional and, my favorite, overly sensitive. Does our culture allow women to be angry?
“I’m 55. Women my age were taught in our professional lives that we had to be like men, wear the blue suits. We tried to become mini-men. But a man who gets angry is manly; a woman who gets angry is a bitch. Those stereotypes are out there.
“People are afraid of angry women, so that’s the fear of Hillary [Rodham Clinton]. People expect men to be angry, and a woman who is angry loses the pretty. Your face gets red, you’re not Minnesota nice.”
In my 50s I’ve been working to respond more than react. Has your relationship with anger changed with age?
“Most people become mellower with age. You learn to pick your battles, you learn to let things go. Self-reflection makes a difference. Are you willing to be vulnerable?”
Is anger ever justified?
“Part of our work at the Dispute Resolution Center is learning to diagnose the conflict. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You need to know what the appropriate response is.
“If you’re Rosa Parks, you don’t mediate. If there’s an injustice, you need to get out there and stand up and effect change. There are reasons why we have the legal and criminal-justice systems. But way too many issues are being treated as though they’re about ‘rights,’ and they could be solved in an inter-personal way.”