Anger Masks Emotions in Mediation

Anger Masks Emotions in Mediation
Anger Masks Emotions in Mediation

Famed psychologist Paul Ekman calls anger one of the six basic emotions. He notes that its expression is universal across cultures. Even as infants, we instinctively recognize and react to its presence in those around us. According to Ekman, anger originates when an important goal is frustrated, or someone tries to hurt us or someone we feel responsible for, physically or psychologically, therefore can get angry. Under this definition, anger is a response to threatening external stimuli, which is often accompanied by a desire to hurt the source of the anger-producing events

In contrast, other behaviorists argue that all or nearly all anger arises in response to threats to our ego. In this view, it is driven by internal stimuli. These emotions human beings have been told we should not have or that we or others perceive as weak – examples include fear, shame, helplessness, sadness, and guilt. In the ego-threat model of anger, we know we will be judged harshly by our peers for having disfavored emotions. With no conscious thought on our part, our brains hide those emotions behind an angry veneer.

There is certainly evidence for the idea. Think about it. From the time we are children, we are taught that some emotions are disfavored and that displaying them can have negative social consequences. We hear songs like “Don’t Worry Be Happy“ and “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” as if worries should simply be ignored rather than dealt with.

“Never let ‘em see you sweat” means don’t show your anxiety. We’re told in songs and sayings that big boys (and girls) don’t cry. Girls shouldn’t be a Debbie Downer, and no one likes a sad sack. The saying “laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone,” predicts complete social isolation if we don’t hide our sorrow with laughter. “Don’t be a scaredy-cat“ mocks our fears, however well-founded they may be. The examples go on and on. The point is that we are culturally conditioned to believe that dire social consequences will follow if we express low-status negative emotions rather than their positive counterparts.

When we feel these emotions we cover them up, or “mask” them with anger. Getting angry is our emotional armor. Dr. Daniel Gottman refers to the “anger iceberg,” with anger on top and the masked ego-threatening lower-status emotions lurking underneath. Still, other psychologists believe that only some people get angry because of ego threats.

As part of the basic fight or flight response, anger helps us prepare to take immediate and energetic action to fend off real or perceived threats to our important needs. It is a physiological as well as a psychological response.

Anger energizes us. An angry’s person blood pressure rises, adrenaline and other hormones flood our systems, and we become hyper-vigilant and highly aroused. Blood flow even increases to our hands so that we can better hold a weapon or strike a target. In short, anger evolved to help us get ready for conflict. Mediators, as conflict resolution professionals, must be as ready to deal with anger management, as first responders are to deal with aggression and physical injuries.

Some of the anger we see as mediators make perfect sense. It arises out of clear threats or damage to our physical health, our economic well-being, our future livelihood, or our long-term prospects. It can also spring from wrongs to those we feel driven to protect, such as our families, or frustration that obvious goals are being thwarted.

Regardless of whether anger is a basic emotion, as Ekman theorizes, or serves as a mask for ego-threatening low-status emotions, the presence of anger in mediation is a problem the mediator must solve because, like other strong emotions, it has serious and predictable impacts on negotiators” mentality, decisions, and behavior that can seriously impair the mediation process.

Human beings are emotional creatures. Every decision we make is affected by our emotions because the emotional area of the brain (the amygdala) works much faster than the decision-making area (the frontal lobe). Thus, we are ready to get really mad in response to threats much faster than we can reason out a course of conduct.

Studies of the effects of anger on negotiation outcomes conclude that anger is generally a “high-status” emotion. That is, others see angry negotiators as tough, powerful, and competent. Those weak negotiating positions will concede more to an angry negotiator. It might seem that if you have the upper hand even slightly, behaving as if you are angry is a good negotiation technique.

But depending on social expectations and one’s place in a relevant hierarchy, anger may not be seen as a high-status emotion. For example, angry women are unfairly perceived as unstable, difficult, or even hysterical for the same conduct that makes men look powerful and competent. In the workplace, angry subordinates are far more likely than angry supervisors to be punished or labeled troublemakers.

Because it is a high arousal state, anger is tiring. It raises our blood pressure and heart rate, floods our system with adrenaline and other stimulating hormones, and increases blood flow to our hands so that we are more able to hold a weapon or strike a target. It prepares us for physical action. If we remain in this high-energy state for too long, fatigue may cause us to abandon a mediation that could be successful given time, or to make poor decisions.

In fact, the National Center for Biotechnology Information has shown that anger impairs decision-making ability. It takes longer to make even simple decisions when we are angry than when we are relaxed.

The mental changes caused by it are even more detrimental to the mediation process than the physical ones. Angry parties are overconfident, eager to act, risk-tolerant, and competitive. They are also suspicious, jealous, and cynical. A less helpful combination of traits for reaching a successful mediation result is hard to imagine. Mediation requires an accurate assessment of the risk involved in a failure to agree, careful exploration of alternative solutions, trust in the mediator, and patience. None of these is likely to be displayed by a risk-tolerant, overconfident, overeager, competitive, suspicious, and cynical party — that is, an angry party.

Anger breeds anger, by a process known as “emotional contagion.” That is, we tend to mirror the strongest emotion in the room. So it’s a good bet that one angry party will soon become two or more angry parties, multiplying a mediator’s problems. Because of this, anger must be dealt with as soon as possible.

In general, where anger is derailing the mediation, the parties should be brought into a private caucus. They are more likely to talk about their emotions alone with a calm neutral than in the presence of their opponent. Deal with the angry party first. They will expect to be avoided. Attending to them first will surprise them and may build goodwill. Also, dealing with them quickly will keep them from brooding or building up resentment over a long wait.

The goal of the caucus is to remove the mask and reveal the ego-threatening emotion underneath. Why? Because until the threat is dealt with, the defensive anger will remain.

Sometimes unmasking will be as simple as asking questions like these: “What were you dreading most about today’s mediation?“ “What is the worst possible outcome for today’s mediation?” “What upsets you most about (the underlying situation) and its aftermath?” “Are there things you wish you hadn’t done in the (underlying situation) and its aftermath? Questions like this may uncover low-status emotions like anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame. Of course, the party may not feel secure enough to talk to you about these emotions. But asking the questions will engage the analytical part of his or her brain, which typically helps to defuse anger.
Another thing you can try is talking generally – how easily we become angry, how anger causes or amplifies pain, how it drains us, and how it is likely to interfere with the party’s goals for the mediation. Stay calm and keep your voice low.

You can explain anger masks to the party – how being angry covers more vulnerable emotions, and use the example of a parent who gets angry with a child for not doing schoolwork because the parent is fearful the child will not succeed. Ask what uncomfortable emotions might be covered up by the party’s anger. Then just wait silently and hope that the angry party fills the void with something useful. Be prepared to hear that your approach is unhelpful psychological mumbo-jumbo. Simply ask how you can be helpful.

Not everyone will let you take off their anger masks. Those who have been trained to dominate (military, police) who value emotional distance (lawyers, doctors, first responders), or who feel the need to control (judges, CEOs) will be particularly hard to reach. But when you can unmask their anger, you may well find the key to a successful mediation.

Scott Van Soye
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