Someone did something wrong. Something happened, outside of your control but within theirs, that impacted you in a hurtful, time-consuming, or perhaps even expensive way.
You have every right to be angry. Pissed off. Annoyed. Frustrated.
Forget this empathy horsepucky – you’re mad, and you’re going to tell them all about it.
Hold on a minute!
There’s a big misconception – and I do mean BIG – that understanding the other person’s experience (a.k.a. empathy) is for the benefit of that other person.
Wrong. So very wrong.
When you understand why and how individuals react, speak, and generally behave the way they do, you have vastly greater capacity to influence them and shape outcomes into what you want. Realizing this, you’ll see that in fact empathy for the other person provides you with the information you need to manage the situation as effectively as possible.
In this example – you’ve been done wrong – the immediate impulse is to tell the wrong-doer just how wrong they are.
Pause for a moment and consider: when was the last time someone unloaded on you, perhaps out of the blue, or perhaps when you already knew you’d screwed up?
Did their angry description of how badly you’d behaved inspire you to make amends?
I doubt it. If you’re like most people (meaning, you’re human and not a saint!), you probably got angry in turn, and the situation slid on downhill. When under attack – especially sudden attack – even the guiltiest conscience quickly turns into defensive reactivity.
So stop for a moment.
How can you state your case without arousing their “fight-freeze-flight” response? Can you find words that will make it clear you’re not happy with what happened, while also engaging them in a solution to the problem?
Here’s a hint: avoid “why” questions such as, “Why did you do that?” Even when asked in what might feel like a gentle tone of voice, “why” questions almost always arouse defensiveness – and again, that’s just not helpful.
It may seem like I’m advocating coddling their feelings when you’re the one who’s been mistreated. That’s not at all the case. I’m a strong proponent of firm boundaries and never allowing ourselves to be abused in any way.
But angry retaliation is – to be blunt – just as abusive, and, more to the point, is more likely to escalate the problem than solve it; it’s seldom (if ever) an effective way to change the situation for the better.
Anger in and of itself is not “wrong” (feelings are never “wrong,” they just are). It’s what we do with our anger that tips the scales. So anger can inspire us to understand the other person in order to take a stand for ourselves – or it can lead us to whack someone verbally, emotionally, or even physically.
It’s up to us which way it goes.