Communication And Disrespectful Anger:
A Poor Match At Best
Angry and hostile people are poor communicators.
Their efforts to communicate often hurt themselves and those
around them. They frequently attribute their anger and abuse
problems to the fact that they and the others important to
them "just don't communicate very well." In fact,
the reasons for their anger are not this simple, but their
poor communication style can be both a contributor to and
a result of their angry and abusive attitudes and behaviors.
The most common type of poor communication comes in the
form of becoming explosive and lashing out at others.
Angry people tend to say whatever comes to mind, often arguing
that being "brutally honest" is the best way to
live. They are not interested in being "polite"
or "kind" and do not seem to care how their communication
affects anyone else. The only people who really count in their
minds are themselves. And then they react with surprise, indignation,
and emotional pain when others distance and pull away from
them, which is often the end result of this type of behavior.
However, although this is the most common problem identified
with angry peoples' communication, it is not the only one.
Angry people may also be hurtful in what they say to others
by responding in sarcastic or indirect ways. They are
able to communicate their angry feelings but others have great
difficulty holding them accountable for what they are saying
or engaging them in a constructive dialogue.
Or they may "clam up," say nothing at all,
and thus not respond directly to others even when they really
need to do so. Often, this results in their carrying around
the resentment and frustration that comes from "stuffing"
their anger and the other feelings they experience. This has
the potential to set them up to respond in one of the two
ways mentioned above at a later time.
This article discusses the three styles of communication
most frequently used by angry people. It also discusses
an alternative way to communicate which is absolutely necessary
to learn if you are going to handle your anger more effectively
in your daily living. This style is called being assertive
and involves being open and honest with the people around
you in a way that is not hurtful to others or you yourself.
In order to do this, you first need to identify what you think,
feel, and want and then communicate it directly and respectfully
to others. Learning to do this in your ongoing life is an
important part of feeling good about yourself and decreasing
the anger that you carry within you. It can also build self-esteem
and self-confidence and can increase the potential for you
to be truly close to others.
Many angry people think the purpose behind presenting an
anger management workshop is to turn them into "wimps,"
so they will keep their mouths shut and never speak up for
themselves, even when they need to. Nothing could be farther
from the truth.
Standing up for yourself effectively and respectfully,
with partners, friends, co-workers, parents, and others can
be very difficult. So much of how you connect with and
relate to others comes from your early life experiences. The
family where you grew up is literally like a laboratory where
you are taught how to be a person. Relationships with parents,
siblings, and peers are critical in determining what you learn
about communicating your thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs.
You may have been told or shown that other people were out
to get you and that you had to respond "in kind."
You might have been told that the best defense is a good offense
and that you are "Number One" and what you want
is all that counts. Those are the sorts of attitudes that
set the stage for you to lash out or respond in a manipulative
way in your relationships with others.
You might have been told or shown that it was selfish
to be aware of and think about yourself and your needs.
You may have been told not to ask questions because that just
showed how dumb you really were. You may have been told that
it was important to avoid "rocking the boat" and
creating conflict because disagreement just leads to bad feelings.
You may have been told that it is important to stay on "the
good side" of others no matter what. Those are the kinds
of messages that set the stage for you to "shut down"
and stay quiet in your current life.
The best way to begin to become more assertive is to
clearly understand the differences between these four styles
of communicating. Let's define these styles and give some
examples of each.
The most recognized style of communication for angry people
is called being AGGRESSIVE. The "bottom
line" message when you use this style is "I
count and you don't." Being aggressive is certainly
standing up for yourself, but it involves being hurtful, punishing,
and disrespectful to others and speaking up at the expense
of everyone around you. You get what you want and attain your
goals but there is no consideration for others' rights, feelings,
and wishes. No one else really matters to you.
On a short-term basis, this approach may seem to work pretty
well. You really might be able to get what you want at the
time. But eventually others end up feeling hurt, resentful,
and threatened and tend to withdraw from you. This only increases
the anger and hostility that you feel toward the rest of the
world. The goal of being aggressive is to control and dominate
others and to try to appear completely invulnerable.
Aggressive behavior can be emotional, verbal, physical,
and sexual. It can include commands like "We
will do this my way!" It could be put-downs like
"What an idiot!" and "Why can't you
ever do anything right?" It might involve threats
like "If you keep saying that, you're going to get
it." Or it might include non-verbal behavior like
raising your voice to drown the other person out of the conversation
and a cold "steely" glare to intimidate someone
and get them to "back off."
A second communication style that also involves aggressive
elements is called being PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE.
Often people are confused about this style and think that
it means being passive for awhile and then becoming aggressive.
In reality, it is much more complicated than that. Again the
basic message is "I count, you don't." Once
again, it is also standing up for yourself and communicating
what you think, feel, or want. But, different from the aggressive
style's direct and "in your face" approach, being
passive-aggressive involves communicating in an underhanded
and manipulative way so that the other person generally has
great difficulty knowing exactly what you intend to convey.
This style also makes it hard to hold you accountable for
whatever you are saying or doing.
The intention in being passive-aggressive is often
to punish or get back at others when they have said or done
something you did not like. But, it is done in a way
that avoids taking any responsibility for yourself and what
you are communicating.
Being passive-aggressive can include verbal statements.
An example is becoming sarcastic and saying things like "I'm
sure you really know what you're talking about" or
"I guess you must be Ms. Perfect." But frequently,
it involves indirect but powerful messages expressed through
your behavior. You might feel angry about your partner being
late for something you enjoy and then look for an opportunity
to be late for something she wants to do at another time.
Or you might "forget" to do something you agreed
to do because you are upset with the other person about a
completely separate issue.
Being passive-aggressive is especially destructive
in relationships because even if others have the "audacity"
to ask directly about what you are trying to communicate,
you may simply use this as an opportunity to "zing"
them even further. The other person might respond to your
sarcasm with "You seem really angry. What's going
on?" At that point, if you want to continue being
passive-aggressive, you can simply look confused and respond
by saying, "Hey, what's the matter with you. I was
only joking. You sure are sensitive today." Or the
other person might respond to your "forgetfulness"
by expressing a feeling or concern about it, at which point
you might simply say to them, "Hey, what's the big
deal. I'm only human after all."
Using this style on a consistent basis is another way to
hurt and punish others and eventually leads to emotional distance,
a lack of trust, and relationship difficulties. Others do
not know what you really want to communicate because you are
not willing to be honest and straightforward about what you
really think, feel, or want.
A third style of communicating is called being PASSIVE.
Surprisingly, this style is more common in angry individuals
than many people realize. All too often, angry people simply
withdraw and "stuff" what they feel in many situations
and then explode later, often with those closest to them who
are deemed to be safe and reasonable "targets" for
The "bottom line" message in being passive is
"You count and I don't." When you are passive,
you violate your own rights because you are not willing to
express your thoughts, feelings, and wants honestly and directly
to those around you and to actually take care of yourself
in your interactions with other people. This style involves
failing to say what you really mean and being fearful about
asking for what you really want. Or it may be trying to stand
up for yourself but doing it in such an ineffective way that
others do not really feel the need to take you seriously.
An example of discounting yourself in this way might be starting
to speak up but prefacing it with "I probably shouldn't
be saying this, but..." or "I hope you don't
mind if I tell you this, but..."
Being passive is allowing others to treat you in whatever
way they want without your being willing to challenge their
behavior in a direct and effective way. What is especially
disturbing about being consistently passive is that you essentially
train other people to take advantage of you. You actively
communicate to them the message that "I am unimportant
and what I think, feel, and want is insignificant."
The goal of being passive is to avoid conflict, disagreement,
and others' anger and disapproval at any price. The
end result of being passive is submission to everyone around
you. Even worse, being consistently passive can bring you
both emotional symptoms like depression, anxiety, or frustration
and physical symptoms like headaches or stomach upset.
Some examples of passive behavior would include the following.
You might say things like "Whatever you want is alright"
or "It doesn't matter to me." You may nod
and smile even when you don't agree with what someone is saying
to you. You might agree to do something even if it is a significant
inconvenience for you. Or you may communicate to others both
verbally and non-verbally that you are weak, timid, inferior,
and that what you think, feel, or want does not really matter.
For angry people, being passive has the potential to build
an enormous reservoir of resentment and frustration within
you, which sets the stage for becoming explosive and aggressive
at a later time.
The final style, which is generally very difficult for angry
people to develop and use, is called being ASSERTIVE.
Being assertive is an honest, direct, and respectful expression
of your thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs in a way that
does not disregard the rights of others. The "bottom
line" messages are "I count and so do you"
or "We both count." Being assertive is looking
inside yourself, figuring out what your "truth"
is, and then taking the risk to become vulnerable and share
what you are experiencing with others in your life. This involves
sharing your anger but it also includes sharing the many other
feelings that your anger often hides. This process has the
potential to build your self-esteem and self-confidence and
greatly increases the likelihood that you will experience
understanding and closeness in your relationships.
Being assertive is behaving in ways that demonstrate
your strength, stand up for your legitimate personal rights,
and give voice to your own perspective. But it is
doing this without the expectation that the other person will
"back down," agree with you, or do what you want
them to do. The real goal of being assertive is clear communication,
not necessarily getting what you want. When you are assertive,
you open a door and invite others to join you in a constructive
dialogue. This may lead to a resolution or it may not. In
the end, if it does not, you are still the one who is responsible
for deciding how to best take care of yourself if the issue
or concern arises again in the future. The important part
of this is that you have been honest and open and let others
know who you are and how you experience your world.
Some examples of being verbally assertive include the following.
You might say things like "I feel angry about what
you just said," "I'd like to spend time together
tomorrow," and "I really appreciate what
you just did for me." Or, after you've talked about
your partner's lateness and nothing has changed, behavioral
assertiveness involves your deciding to do something to take
care of yourself and perhaps go in a separate car to family
gatherings so that you don't continue to feel so frustrated
and resentful at those times.
If you find yourself getting angry more often than
you would like, start to think about and notice how
you communicate with those around you. Begin to identify where
you might want to become more assertive in your daily life.
Working toward becoming more assertive can make an significant
difference in how you feel about yourself, how those around
you feel about you, and in how much anger, hostility, and
resentment you carry within you.
© 1996 David J. Decker, MA, LP
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 - www.ANGEResources.com