Sunday, July 17, 2011


Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
~ Matthew 7:15

Anger is taboo in our culture.

Unlike other negative emotions... sadness, fear, boredom... raw anger is socially proscribed and must be refined-- suppressed or “managed”-- before it is heard. We send angry children to their rooms and withdraw from angry friends or lovers until they “cool down”. We refuse to listen to an agitated roar until it subsides to a levelheaded whimper.

Because of our anxiety around anger, we fail to attend to the nuances of different situations that involve the expression of anger, and are not very nuanced in our reactions to it. When anger is expressed to us, we tend to hear it as expressed at us. When anger is expressed at us, we tend to experience it as an assault...

So anger generally elicits a defensive reaction that does not win the angry person our support or sympathy. Worse, it often elicits a counter-attack. This, I believe, is because it is mistaken for aggression, a precursor to violence and declaration of war. We defend by attacking back, and all hell breaks loose. Welcome to the animal realm. But, as Norman Cottrell of the Beck Institute in an online article on Anger versus Aggression says,
... anger doesn't break bones, aggression does. Anger need not sabotage one's goals, aggression or passive-aggression does. And anger doesn't always imply violence. People can be angry without being violent -- they can use it as energy for constructive action. And they can be violent without being angry -- as in the instrumental actions of a sociopath ("Nothing personal. It's just business.").

The irony of course is that we are so defended against anger that we don't notice when aggression, the real enemy, creeps in like a wolf in sheep's clothing, masked by equanimity, rational argumentation or eloquent silence.

Over-preoccupied with the messenger, we are in danger of not hearing the message.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Unexpectedly, as I opened myself
to love, I was accepted.
~Chogyam Trungpa, The Perfect Love Poem

Conflict arises when two people want to be heard and neither is listening. There is disharmony, polarity, a split. This disharmony escalates into dissonance when, instead of taking turns being quiet and listening to each other, you raise the volume and take turns making speeches. You're caught in serial monologues that deepen the conflict and polarize you even more. Cacophony now threatens as you feel compelled to defend yourselves, firing arguments at each other like artillery in the hopes of quashing all resistance to being heard. Alas, you are perceived as the aggressor and defended against in turn... and on and on it goes. Like a war.

In order to resolve conflict nonviolently, monologue has to yield to dialogue, and self-promotion to vulnerability, that is, exposing one's inner world as opposed to imposing it on someone else. Nonviolent communication has been described as comprising four aspects: making an observation about how the situation affects you; sharing your feelings about it; stating your need; and making a request. It has also been described succinctly as making “I statements”. Basically, instead of trying to survive a conflict by taking down the other guy (the war path described above), you expose your weakness to him and ask for help.

This is very similar to Harville Hendrix dialogue guidelines for couples, except that empathic listening, or mirroring, is included from the outset. Mirroring what you hear is a form of holding the person who is exposing himself to you, ensuring his sense of safety, much like a loving mother who holds a child overwhelmed by his feelings. It is a way of containing and regulating intense reactive emotions, healing the wound that caused us to defend against others in the first place.

Ideally, the resolution of conflict is less ambitious than unity, but more ambitious than nonviolence. It is harmonious duality, like the healthy differentiation between a child and his mother when she compassionately embraces his separation and departure.