A fellow coach supervisor recently described her interaction with officials who were enforcing fire safety regulations in the shared hallway of her property. Their overbearing and pre-emptory manner was intrusive and she was quickly consumed by fury. Mid melt-down, she realised that being angry wasn’t helping and used all her skills and experience to de-escalate the situation for both herself and the protagonists.
In doing so, she stopped a process in which ‘fire hazards’ like her bike and other personal items were being removed. The men left empty-handed. Whilst she was burdened with finding a longer-term resolution, in the moment she got a good result in immensely difficult circumstances. I thought she’d been extraordinary and said so!
In concluding her tale, my colleague mentioned that she remained rattled by the exchange and felt unable to ‘let it go’. She wondered if this was because she’d been unable to fully express her anger. Whilst this is an intriguing possibility, I have a different perspective.
In ‘Difficult conversations’ (Stone et al) there’s a chapter entitled ‘Have your feelings (or they will have you)’. It recommends taking account of our feelings in important conversations. The premise, which I support, is that feelings will gate-crash the conversation if we don’t invite them into it.
I explore this in Pause for Breath, outlining the way our human complexity shapes our internal dialogue and what we say. When we look closely, we often find inconsistencies between our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. If we can be transparent about this, the ground of a conversation expands and becomes more fruitful. In this context, we might ask: to what extent is it useful to ‘have our feelings’ in order to communicate well?
My understanding – not researched or fact-checked – is that, physiologically and energetically, a natural feeling experience lasts for 60-90 seconds. What endures are features such as the story we attribute to it, our attachment to it, our identification with it and our feelings about having it. These factors fuel and maintain the initial emotion – sometimes escalating it to become the dominant element of an experience.
To illustrate, I’ll describe my own relationship with anger – a feeling with which I’m intimately acquainted across a range from mild irritation to being incandescent with rage. I’m one angry bird*! By studying anger forensically, I’ve become familiar with the way it compromises my ability to communicate skilfully. Along the way, I’ve learned to relate to it differently.
In the past, I could remain angry about something for weeks because, once I became angry, I fuelled it with narratives of resentment, self-justification, blame, arrogance, judgement and criticism. As I attributed my circumstances (and feelings!) to others and/or bolstered a sense of grievance, I sidestepped any examination of my part in whatever had occurred.
As I began to understand the relationship between anger and the way I fanned its flames, I could more often let it burn out. For highly-charged events at the ‘incandescent’ end of the spectrum, I learned to use mindfulness and embodied practices to dowse the blaze: I’d apply them each time anger reignited, reducing its intensity for a while. With each application, the anger was less strong when it returned. Gradually ‘dialling down’ the potency of anger sometimes took a few hours of consistent effort… and sometimes a couple of days. I began to think of anger as having a ‘half-life’ like radioactive materials: over time, its intensity would decay – if, and only if, I didn’t aggravate it!
My perspective now is that anger (and any emotion) provides useful data. Once I’ve acknowledged the feeling, I’ll communicate more effectively when it’s run its course. This motivates me to take steps to minimise its duration. When the anger abates, I’m able to inquire into my part in the events that gave rise to it – and so respond more appropriately.
I conclude that we should have our feelings enough to discharge them, but not so much that we’re driven by them. I think my colleague walked this line superbly – and in real time! Respect!
So, what lingered a few days later? Probably her story and the ongoing inconvenience. Having served its purpose, the original anger would have expired.
- Which emotion is most likely to linger for you after an event? How do you perpetuate it?
- How might you acknowledge this feeling and then allow it to fall away? What changes when you do this?
* I ask forgiveness for this retro use of ‘bird’!