Good Anger

An article in the New York Times, The Rationality of Rage, summarizes the findings of several studies about when expressing anger can be productive.

Despite the catchy title of the article, expressing rage generally isn’t helpful.  But expressing anger can be useful in some situations.

The article distinguishes three types of negotiations – primarily cooperative (e.g., starting a business), primarily competitive (e.g., dissolving a business), and a mixture (e.g., selling a business to a buyer).  According to the findings of a forthcoming paper:

In two experiments, negotiators made greater concessions to those who expressed anger — but only in balanced situations.  When cooperating, hostility seems inappropriate, and when competing, additional heat only flares tempers.  But in between, anger appears to send a strategically useful signal.

The signal is that the person feels feel undervalued and may harm the other or withhold benefits.

To be effective, expressions of anger must be (or appear) genuine.  Faking anger can increase the counterparts’ distrust and demands.

(Following a long line of wiseguys and gals, I tell students that sincerity is the key to success. If they can fake that, they’ve got it made.)

However, expression of anger can be risky because even when anger is perceived to be genuine, it can prompt counterparts to sabotage the angry party.

But sometimes expressions of anger are constructive.

Expressing anger can sometimes benefit all the parties . . . by clarifying boundaries, needs and concerns.  Think of the loved one who doesn’t realize how strongly you feel about the relationship until you express feelings of frustration with it.  In a 2009 article in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, the authors found that anger is more likely to lead to such mutually positive outcomes when it is low in intensity;  expressed verbally rather than physically;  and takes place in an organization that considers it appropriate (like a labor union or a university athletic department).

These findings suggest that, when expressed appropriately, anger (not rage) can actually be quite helpful.

A key variable may be whether expression of anger is considered acceptable or not in a particular setting, culture, or relationship etc.  I think of differences between families where arguing angrily is considered as normal (and thus may be considered as a form of engagement) and those where intense expression of anger is taboo and can undermine relationships.

Good mediators understand dynamics like these and help people express anger as constructively as possible.

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