A Handy Trick I Learned From the Karma Project
It used to be, for me, that marital arguments went like this:
It’s your fault.
No, it’s your fault.
No, really, it’s ALL you. Trust me.
No, trust me. It’s ALL you.
Of course, the words and phrases were more specific. Instead of “it’s your fault,” I might have said, “My pants are wrinkled because you didn’t fold the clothes until three days after the drier stopped.” But you get the idea.
Well, a while ago I wrote about the idea of accepting defeat and handing over the victory. I’ve been practicing this technique a lot and I can tell you this: it has transformed my relationships with my husband, my friends, my colleagues and even some strangers.
And I don’t feel like a doormat. At. All.
In fact, I feel stronger and more in control than ever. Rather than getting nothing accomplished and losing my mind in the process, this technique allows me to defuse anger, stay calm, and move the discussion to a place where we both can solve problems and move forward.
If you’d like to try it, here are the steps to follow.
- Listen. Close your mouth and open your ears. Angry people don’t want to hear about why they shouldn’t be angry. They don’t want to hear about how it’s not your fault. And they, at that moment, care very little about how you feel because, at that moment, they don’t see you as a human being with feelings. They see you as the devil incarnate. More important, they just want to be heard. If you interrupt, make excuses, blame, or stonewall, you will strengthen this person’s mental image of you as the devil incarnate, making him or her even angrier.
- Fight the instinctual reaction to meet anger with anger, sarcasm with sarcasm, blame with blame, and insult with insult. Note: I never said this was going to be easy. It helps to know that this reaction comes from your self-preservation instinct. It’s tied into the fight or flight response. And, back in the day when we all carried clubs for protection, it had a real purpose. Today? Not so much. If you are anything like me, you will probably feel hot in the face and get this nasty tingling feeling. Breathe your way through it.
- Get inside the angry person’s head. Once the angry person has called you every name in the book and has run out of mental juice, try to understand the problem. Do this by asking questions and rephrasing what the person just said. For instance, “So you’re angry because I left my socks on the floor?” Note: Angry people tend to be somewhat irrational. It might take you a while to pinpoint the true cause of the anger. You might initially hear a tirade about your socks only to eventually learn that your spouse is really mad at your mother. Be patient. Breathe. Make it your goal to understand and not to win.
- Assume the Blame. Again, I never said this was going to be easy. Get creative. We can workshop how to do this in the comments. You can all come up with scenarios that you think will make it impossible for you to Assume the Blame, and I’ll show you how to do it. Try to stump me.
- Compliment and apologize. Again, this is tough, but it’s so important. Thank the angry person for bringing this problem to your attention so the two of you can work through it and get past it. Tell the angry person that you never intended to hurt him or her.
- Solve the problem (if needed) or promise to change (if needed). This is the most important part, and it’s the part of the process that Anger vs. Anger prevents you from reaching.
The beautiful part of this process, as I’ve learned, is that it only takes one person to pull it off and move the marriage to a much better place. Assuming your angry person is not mentally ill and hearing voices, this process works on the most dysfunctional of people. Sure, it’s not fair that you always have to be the big person, but ask yourself what’s more important to you: fairness or happiness?
One last note about Steps 2 and 4 before I let the commenting begin. These require practice. You’ll get better at them over time. In the beginning, however, it’s going to feel foreign, scary and downright wrong. You might feel vulnerable. To help myself get past my fear, I tell myself the following:
- This is a great way for me to practice my interpersonal skills. I’m eventually going to be the best communicator on the planet!
- Just think of how stress free my life will eventually be if I keep practicing this technique!
- This angry person really is not the devil incarnate. Rather, he/she was sent to me by the universe so I can practice my compassion, grow in my humility, and become a better, happier person.
- This angry person really is not the devil incarnate. He/she is just a poor, deluded individual who is suffering in a big way and who doesn’t know any other way to communicate. The poor thing. How could I not help this person?
And when none of the above works, I imagine the Dalai Lama and try to visualize him in my shoes. To date, my imaginary Dali Lama has yet to hurl insults and curse words. More important, that visualization helps me get past my pride and open myself up to humility.
What do you tell yourself to transform anger into patience and compassion? Do you have a situation that you would like to workshop in the comments area? Do you think this technique will work, or do you think the anger vs. anger approach is the best way to go? Leave a comment. Let’s learn from each other.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.