November 2, 2005
Excerpts: Beyond Reason - Part III
It can be difficult to contain a strong negative emotion. Just as a person who is madly in love wants to tell the world, a negotiator who is extremely angry wants to release the internal tension generated by the emotion. A tempting way to release anger is to vent. Venting occurs when we openly and without censor express the extent of our anger to someone, typically to the person who caused it.
Consider the situation of John and Louise, who recently divorced after seven years of marriage. They have two children. Louise takes care of them during weekdays, and John is in charge of them during weekends. For several weeks in a row, John was late in returning the children to Louises house. After the first week that John was late, Louise said nothing. Better to keep good relations for the sake of our kids, she thought. After the second week John was late, she still kept quiet, but was biting her tongue to do so. After the third week, Louise decided that the best thing to do would be to vent her anger at John. But was that a wise decision?
Venting can make a bad situation worse. Venting often causes more harm than good. And venting to the person who angered us can be disastrous. Think about its effect on the interaction between Louise and John. As Louise gets angrier and angrier, she comes to believe that John slighted or wronged her. She thinks to herself, How dare he keep the children more hours than he is allowed? Her frustration festers until, during his third late arrival, she marches out of her house, storms up to his car, and yells: Cant you tell time? Youre late. Youre always late. This is my time with the kids, not yours! Its just like you! He defends himself and bites back at her: If you hadnt been late in dropping them off in the first place, then maybe theyd be home on time. But you cant take away my time with my kids. Its just like you to try to control me like that.
The intensity of the back-and-forth venting escalates. For every attack one person makes, the other constructs a justification. Each person becomes increasingly persuaded that he or she is right. And as each gets angrier, he or she sees the situation increasingly in black-and-white terms. I am right; my ex-spouse is wrong. As a result, each person feels increasingly entitled to feel upset. This process easily can lead to an explosion of emotions.
Focus on understanding, not blaming. As your emotions heat up, recognize that you might feel the desire to blame someone for causing your emotions. You mutter to a colleague, This is all your fault that we didnt get the proposal in on time! Or you blame yourself: How could I have been so stupid not to make sure the proposal was sent.
Either way, blaming does not help. It typically leads to a downward cycle of self-justifications, criticism, and negative emotions.
As an alternative, refocus your attention on trying to understand the message underlying your emotions. This may be hard to do if your emotions are heated (in which case you should first self-soothe). But if you feel capable, dig for core concerns that might have stimulated your emotions. Understanding what has upset you or others can make you feel somewhat better. At the very least, you know what is bothering you, and you can take corrective action.
Lets see what happens if Louise uses this advice. Before John arrives, she spends a few minutes understanding her strong negative feelings. She recognizes that her autonomy feels impinged on by his repeated late arrival without first consulting her. This new understanding empowers her, and she feels a release of tension. Once John arrives, she is able to clearly express her concerns. Instead of saying, You irresponsible parent! You didnt get the kids to my house by the agreed upon deadline, she says, I feel upset. I understood that we had agreed upon the time to drop off the kids. Was I mistaken? I came home early from a meeting to make sure I was here. After listening to him, she decides to learn more, asking, How do you see the situation? Do you have ideas on how we might reduce the risk of upsetting each other like this?
Still, there are moments when your emotions feel so intense that all the rational advice in the world seems useless. You just want to vent. At such times, we urge you to do so with caution.
If you vent, be careful not to further justify your anger. When you talk with someone about your strong negative emotions, recognize that you risk creating new justifications for your anger. The person with whom you are speaking may not think that your reasons for getting upset are appropriate; but you are likely to be persuaded by your reasons. The more often you justify your angerwith a colleague at work, with a friend, or with the person who upset youthe more persuaded you become. Rather than your anger being vented, it escalates.
Stay on topic. To avoid a litany of self-justifications, avoid introducing into the conversation a list of grievances from the past. Well, this is just like the time that you . . . Although John and Louise were arguing about the punctuality of dropping off their children, each strayed from the topic. Louise attacked John by saying, Youre always late. John bit back by telling Louise, Its just like you to try to control me like that. These insults and attacks transformed a contained conflict into an uncontained mess.
Our advice: Stay focused on the current situation. Establish a rule that it is off limits to raise past grievances or to insult one another. The only issues to be raised are those that directly pertain to the current situation. Establish a second rule that if the first rule is broken, each party takes a short break to think about how to move forward productively.
Vent to a third party, not to the person who triggered your emotions. Even venting to an uninvolved person, such as a close friend, can be risky. If the friend is unconditionally biased in your favor, he or she may reinforce your negative perceptions of the person who angered you. For example, John heads to the local bar after dropping off his children. He realizes the importance of staying on good terms with his ex-wife for the sake of their children, but is frustrated by his interaction with her. He meets a close friend at the bar and immediately starts venting: That damned Louise! Shes out of control. Its like shes trying to hold the kids hostage from me. Totally out of line!
Johns friend concurs, saying, Yeah, that sounds ridiculous! She has no right to claim your kids like that!
Consequently, John feels increasingly justified for his self-serving beliefs, making the cycle of anger between John and Louise likely to escalate even more.
To prevent venting from turning into a festival of self-justification, we recommend that you not vent directly to the person who upset you. Instead, communicate your emotions to a disinterested friend or colleague who can moderate your perspective and give balance to your self-justification. For example, after dropping off the kids, John might call up a close friend who John trusts to moderate his perspective. John says, I just got into another fight with my ex. I need to blow off a little bit of steam. Do you have a few minutes for me to tell you what happened? Id appreciate your feedback since I dont think Im seeing clearly right now.
Vent for the other side. If you are venting to yourself or to a close colleague, you want to be careful not to talk yourself into making the situation worse. One helpful activity is to vent as though you are the other side. What would they say? How would they describe the conflict? By venting as though you are the other side, you gain a better understanding of their perspective and consequently soothe some of your strong feelings.
Write a letter to the person who triggered your angerbut dont send it. Sometimes it is impractical or unappealing to enlist the assistance of a third party to help you deal with your strong emotions. On your own, you can do things to deal with your emotions. After the negotiation or during a break, it can be helpful to write a letter or e-mail to the person you feel has injured you. In writing such a letter, describe the impact of their behavior on you. Include a section on ways to keep the negotiation moving forward. Dont send your letter, however. Dont give it to the other personat least not before taking a day or so to reflect with a clear head on whether such a letter will further your purposes in the negotiation. You might share the letter and the experience with a trusted colleague and get their thoughts on the matter.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.