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Friendly Fight: A Smarter Way to Say 'I'm Angry'

The Wall Street Journal, by Elizabeth Bernstein, April 09, 2011

The Wall Street Journal

The following is an excerpt of an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

"Darling, can we talk?

"I know you didn't mean to upset me, but you did. I'd like to clear the air so we can quickly and maturely move on to enjoying our relationship again."

Sound familiar?  Of course not.

In a culture where it's easy to fire off a snippy email or text, most of us have a hard time honestly expressing anger face to face. If someone upsets us, often we shout, stomp off, roll our eyes, refuse to speak to the person or complain to everyone else. Or we kid ourselves that we aren't upset and subconsciously fume—until one day we explode over the seemingly littlest thing.

None of this, of course, is healthy for us or our relationships. Most of us could stand to learn to express anger in a more productive, less destructive way.

For 20 years, Dr. Nancy Zapolski, a psychologist and vice president at Landmark Education, a San Francisco-based personal-development firm, has taught people how to communicate—rather than let angry feelings fester—in seminars and courses. "Where we get in trouble is when we let things build up, because if there is something that you are not saying, then there is a closeness that is just not available to you,"

Before telling someone you are angry, she advises, remind yourself of the purpose of speaking up. "The intention is not to get something off your chest or to dump something on the other person," she says. "The intention is to restore the affinity and the love in the relationship."

Ask yourself: Why am I really mad? What expectations did I have that weren't met? What did I want to happen that didn't happen? The answers will help you better understand your feelings and focus on what you need to say. People can't read minds, Dr. Zapolski says. "It's important to tell them what you want."

For years, Joanna Burgraf, 30, and her brother, Peter Burgraf, 28, would fight like, well, siblings. They would yell, or hang up the phone on each other. Ms. Burgraf sometimes would cry; Mr. Burgraf once got so mad he punched a wall.

A few years ago, they each took a Landmark Education seminar and learned three steps to take when confronting someone: Tell the person why you are upset. Discover why the person did what they did. Clarify what you want them to do differently in the future.

Mr. Burgraf, a banker in Hoffman Estates, Ill., recently put what he learned into practice. Week after week, his sister was late for their regular Sunday-morning workout. One morning, after waiting for more than an hour, he told her: "Look, I have to get this off my chest. When you are late, it screws up the rest of my day. So if this continues, I won't be able to do this anymore."

Ms. Burgraf, a graphic designer in Mount Prospect, got the message. "Now, the second I know I can't make it, I will tell him and ask him what he wants to do," she says. The new on-time plan is working so well that the two now often have time for brunch afterward.

Express Yourself, in Five Steps
When we're upset, most of us would rather not talk about it, preferring to rant or to clam up. Here's a guide to productive anger.

Friendly Fighter 1
Leif Parsons

1. Calm down. Take a walk, or get some sleep, to get perspective and allow your emotions to cool. Think about exactly what disappointed you. Ask the other person to talk. Say, 'When is a convenient time?'

Friendly Fighter 2
Leif Parsons

2. Acknowledge the difficulty of having this conversation. 'This is hard for me to say, and it may be hard for you to hear.' Saying  this out loud will make your words less threatening and defuse the other person's anger and their possibly defensive reaction.

Friendly Fighter 3
Leif Parsons

3. Say 'I,' not 'you.' Don't say, 'You did ___ wrong.' Say, 'I felt hurt when you did___.' 'When you accuse someone, they have to fight back,' says Mark Goulston, Los Angeles psychiatrist. 'When you share what you feel underneath, it gives the other person some room.

Friendly Fighter 4
Leif Parsons

4. Find out why. Ask for the other person's point of view. Say, 'I know you probably didn't mean to hurt me. Why did you do it?' Really listen to the answer.

Friend
Leif Parsons

5. Say everything. This is your chance to put it all on the table and talk about how you can change the situation in the future. 'Could you please do this differently next time?' A hug wouldn't hurt.

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