Four Stages
Key Strategies
Practicing Safe Stress
Top 10 Stress Tips
High Stakes Audition
Listening, Learning and Leading
The Four P Principles
Four Faces of Anger
Humor and the Work Team
The Art of Practicing Safe Stress
Post-Enron Reorganization
Team-Building Process


Four Faces of Anger: Model and Method for Transforming Aggression

The Four Faces of Anger

What's the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word ANGER? Frustration? Yelling? Loss of Control? Violence? Maybe fear, silence or avoidance? All reasonable responses...Or are they? A bit one-sided, for my taste, that is, the "anger glass" appears "half empty." How about a "half full" perspective: confrontation, energy, power and tenacity? Or honesty and being real?

The "half empty" responses, if not totally reasonable, are certainly representative. These are the words that invariably pour out of my workshop participants when asked to associate to "anger." To understand the preponderance of negatives, I ask this follow-up question: "How many people grew up in families where it truly felt safe and secure expressing your angry feelings as well as being the target of other people's angry feelings?" In a room of fifty people, I usually get less than a handful of raised hands, and even some of those seem to be wavering more than waving confidently. And then, drawing upon an old New Yorker cartoon, I offhandedly observe: "About the same number of people who show up for the annual Adult Children of Normal Parents Convention." Which always gets a knowing laugh.

So maybe all these negative associations are not so surprising considering most of us didn't have many "healthy anger" role models. But "anger," like most things in real life, including the short-sited proverbial glass, is often double-edged -- neither half empty nor half full but half empty and half full. (Of course, my smart-assed brother knew how to determine whether the glass was half empty or half full: look for the lipstick stains. Now why didn't I think of that one first. Sibling rivalry, jealousy, family competition...Me angry?)

I sure am an angry guy. And as a youngster and teen I was a lot angrier. I mostly bottled it up, back then. Occasionally, I would explode. But the usual state of affairs, despite endless athletics, was a low grade depression, difficulty concentrating in school, fear of being bullied, mindless TV watching and, too often, being anxiously "good." And, then we had a mid-life family crisis. My father jolted us by separating, returning and entering group therapy when I was 19. A few years later, I followed his path. And all hell broke loose! No, not really, but the family atmosphere was radically different. The myth of anger being only disrespectful, irrational or out of control was being overthrown. My parents were more openly and honestly fighting. Scary, but ultimately liberating for all.

Here's a small section of a poetic opus with ten years of hindsight:

What made him break From our mistake Perhaps we'll never know.
But in the wake Of psychic quake The formula to grow.
The silence cracks Each spouse attacks The couple hardly known.
But on these tracks Of broken backs Emancipation sown!

For me, anger is double-edged. Actually, that's just the beginning.

The Four Angry "I"s

In addition to subjective experience, our language has a unidimensional tilt when defining anger. According to the The Random House Dictionary of the English Language: The Unabridged Edition, anger is "a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by real or supposed wrong." However, a clinical description is broader than a lay one. Anger is a state of heightened activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system (for example, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, flushed face, chest pains, sweaty palms, etc.) that is fueled by our cognitive - conscious and unknowing - interpretations. You experience those "Four Angry 'I's," that is, you have a palpable sense of:

1. Injustice. A rule of conduct, a cherished belief or instrumental goal is being threatened or abused; you see yourself (also others with whom you are psychologically dependent or connected) as a victim of an injustice, unfairness or disloyalty. 2. Injury. You feel disrespected, discarded or ignored; there's a sense of insult and humiliation along with injury -- often psychological, at times also physical. 3. Invasion. Your freedom, autonomy, boundary and personal space are perceived to be constricted, disrupted or violated; your identity and bodily and/or psychological integrity are being threatened or attacked. 4. Intention. There is an energy and determination to do something about the above injustices, injuries and invasions; you are ready - reflexively and/or purposefully - to challenge the status quo.

So anger is a potential range of feelings, from irritation and determination to outrage and fury. Its breadth, depth, intensity and interactive potential is often forged by how one looks at the world through his or her "Four Angry 'I's." As I once wrote:

Anger! That double-edged power source. It's the high octane emotion for blazing performance and for igniting a legitimate grievance. Yet, when it's bottled up we smolder away; when we erupt it may engulf us. And, when we are the target of a volatile flame thrower, there will be scars. (Gorkin, 1986)

A Multifaceted Model

It's time to flesh out and attempt to capture (more likely coax) this wide ranging, ever changing creature. Let's examine the apparent contradictions within "anger" and try to make sense of its protean nature and multi-function. To do this, let me sketch my "Four Faces of Anger" Model. To break out of a unidimensional box, try thinking about the interpersonal expression of anger along these two dimensions:

Is your anger expression "purposeful" or "spontaneous"? Is your anger expression "constructive" or "destructive"?

Let me briefly and loosely define my terms:

"Purposeful" - when anger expression is intentional, with a significant degree of consideration or calculation; there is also a significant degree of self-control

"Spontaneous" - when anger expression is immediate with little premeditation or planning; there is little-moderate self-control

"Constructive" - when anger expression affirms and acknowledges one's integrity and boundary without objectively intending to threaten or violate another's integrity or appropriate boundary

"Destructive" - when anger expression defensively projects and rigidly fortifies one's vulnerable identity and boundary by intending to threaten or violate another's integrity and appropriate boundary (whether the intention is conscious or not)

Returning to our model, the 2x2 matrix yields four possibilities:

1) Purposeful and Constructive Anger Expression
2) Purposeful and Destructive Anger Expression
3) Spontaneous and Constructive Anger Expression
4) Spontaneous and Destructive Anger Expression

Four Faces of Anger Matrix with Box1-Box2-Box3-Box4 labels.

Box 1
Purposeful and
Constructive Anger

Box 2
Purposeful and
Destructive Anger

Box 3
Spontaneous and
Constructive Anger

Box 4
Spontaneous and
Destructive Anger

The Four Faces of Anger Game

To understand the multifaceted nature of anger expression, let's play "The Four Faces of Anger Game."

A. Let's start with Box 1. What word comes to mind when you read Purposeful and Constructive Anger Expression? If a word or phrase doesn't immediately come to mind, does an image or, even, an example of what you might say when expressing this kind of anger?

My choice is "Assertion." Are you surprised? So many people associate anger with yelling and being out of control, that they don't associate assertion and anger...it's too rational. But expressing anger can happen with a firm, basically controlled tone of voice and volume, direct eye contact, a confident posture that's neither aggressively forward nor robotically restrained.

To illustrate the four faces, we'll follow the interaction between a mother and her eighteen-year-old daughter, after the daughter, having used the family car, came home late and did not call. Notice how the anger expression changes as we focus on each interactive "face."

The mother addressing her eighteen-year-old daughter, the following morning: "I'm angry. I let you have the car Friday night with the understanding you'd be home by 1:00am. (Author's note: There's been inflation in permissiveness since the time of Cinderella.) Or, if you were going to be late, we agreed you'd call beforehand. When I didn't hear from you, I was very worried. What happened? I want to talk with you about the car borrowing policy, and the consequences if this happens again." With assertive confrontations, the communicator takes responsibility for her emotions and clarifies her expectations and limits. While sometimes requiring premeditation, "I" messages are not necessarily intellectualized or overly rational. In fact, while typing these two examples, too bad you couldn't see the motion of my fingers as they firmly rapped, more than touched, the keyboard. "I" messages are infused with nonverbal cues and energy.

B. For Box 2, what comes to mind when you read Purposeful and Destructive Anger Expression? Again, try for a word, image or expressive statement.

My preference is "Hostility." Now hostility can take many guises, from condescending comments and being highly judgmental, to "scarcasm" and put down humor, to planning to get even when you feel slighted or injured. And passive-aggressive lateness or forgetfulness certainly falls under this category.

In our "taking the car and getting home late vignette," how do you feel about a mother reacting to her daughter in this manner?: "I can't believe how irresponsible you were last night. You didn't call. You made me sick with worry. You expect me to trust you with the car? We'll see when you get the car again," said with a sneer and a haughty tone. Quite a difference from the assertive response. Plenty of those blaming and judgmental, globally hostile, potentially guilt-inducing "acc-you-sations." Know any such "blameaholics?"

C. For Box 3, what word comes to mind when reading Spontaneous and Constructive Anger Expression? Many people find this combination a most challenging association. That's not so surprising when anger is often linked with being belligerent or dangerously out of control.

Let me reveal my choice by providing some recent historical context. I suspect you can remember watching or listening to the highly charged Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings? Do you recall having any strong feelings? Did any cherished principles seem under attack? Perhaps it stirred some "passionate" beliefs? That's my association: "Passion."

Now "passion" is a very intriguing word. In fact, let's digress for a moment. What's the first thought when you read "passion"?: "Intense emotion." "Desire." "Love." Hey, let's go for the "s"-word. (In my current hometown, Washington, DC, we know what the "s"-word for passion is..."Senator." And you thought I was going to say "sex." How could you?) Actually, the "s"-word for passion in most dictionaries is neither sex nor Senator, nor even "silk," as ventured by one imaginative workshop participant. The long-awaited, if not long-suffering, "s"-word for passion is... just that - "suffering." As in the "passion play": the sufferings of Jesus or, more generically, the sufferings of a martyr. (Imagine, all this time I never knew my Jewish mother was such a passionate woman. Just kidding, mom. ;-)

Let's go back to the mother-daughter late night (actually early morning) interaction. This time from a passionate perspective. Now, however, the mother, not being able to sleep, meets the daughter at the door, and spontaneously confronts her: "What the heck happened? I was expecting a call. I'm angry. I'm up because I was terribly worried and couldn't sleep." After the daughter attempts a brief explanation (and the mother is assured of her safety) the mother, aware of her own difficulty listening, as well as her increasingly loud voice and shaky tone, continues: "I can tell I'm too upset to talk about this now. I'm glad you're home. I'm going to bed, and we'll discuss this incident, including rules for using the car, later in the morning."

Passion is sparked by pure emotion and pain. However, there's a spontaneous response, not a reaction. This person still has a sense of self-integrity and the other's boundary. Passion with proportion is possible. A key point is that confrontations don't have to be wrapped up in one setting. Choosing a temporary retreat for regrouping and refocusing can prove most constructive. This approach is critical, especially if you have: a) reservations about turning the confrontation into a "win-lose" or a "right-wrong" battle, b) hope not to damage the relationship, and c) want both parties to learn and/or gain from the interaction.

D. Finally, with Box 4, what's your association to Spontaneous and Destructive Anger Expression? This is perhaps the easiest, as it seems to conform with most people's concept of anger.

There are many good answers: "Violence." "Screaming." "Hitting." My choice is "Rage." What's your mental picture of a rage state. Someone who is increasingly loud, displaying a string of profanities or threats, belligerent body posture, menacing gestures...blindly out of control. And often feeling victimized, betrayed and self-righteous about their rage. Of course, don't overlook the condition of "smoldering rage," with a low threshold for becoming unglued.

Another important clarification involves distinguishing being "outraged" from being "inraged." (I've coined "inraged" to sharpen the contrast with "outraged" and to differentiate "inraged" from the more generic "enraged.") When terrorists blow up a US government building or plant a bomb on an airplane, one is easily outraged by such unjust, injurious and invasive actions. There is a seemingly clear, external (criminal) target to which all legal action and sanction should be and, hopefully, will be directed.

When we are outraged, our emotional reaction is understandable, if not fully rational; our anger expression, however, if not careful or conscious, can cross the "constructive" vs. "destructive" boundary line. In fact, returning to our matrix model, you might visualize "outraged" as being near, if not on, the border of "passion" and "rage."

In contrast, "inraged," or the Box 4, matrix term "rage," is invariably a destructive state. The inraged individual's exaggerated emotional reaction is fueled as much, if not more, by still unresolved hurts and humiliations than by actual, immediate stimulus-and-response provocation. These never healed wounds can generate biased perceptions or highly exaggerated interpretations regarding the infliction of injustices, insults, injuries and invasions. I refer to these folks as having (or depending on their volatility) being psychic "hot buttons." They are just waiting, many times wanting, to be set off. And the trigger for a hot reactor may be trivial, simply an accidental or unintentional glance, word or touch.

Let's revisit the mother-daughter encounter, for our final, fiery illustration. The mother, furious at her daughter's late return, explodes: "You inconsiderate witch. I should slap you silly," while raising her hand, as well as her voice, in a menacing manner. "I'm here, scared to death, not knowing what the hell's happened to you. Whether you busted up the car, have been raped? How the hell should I know. Do you call? No, you couldn't give a G-d damn. I'll fix your ass later. Get out of my sight."

Whether the first violation of her mother's expectations or (more likely) not, the mother's reaction is clearly personalized and exaggerated, threatening and abusive. Her lashing anger especially stings when loaded with cutting profanity. A tendency for imagining the worst - "catastrophizing" - acutely heightens mom's anxiety. Not only can't the mother hear her daughter out, she can't tolerate the sight of her. Actually, she can't stand her own emotions. The mother may well need to project her own subconscious past associations to helplessness, panic and being out of control. Sadly, she, herself, has likely been a target of a volatile parent, spouse or authority figure.

End Game

Four Faces of Anger Matrix with Assertion-Hostility-Passion-Rage in proper boxes.

Debunking the notion of anger and its expression as being a unidimensional concept is a fundamental goal of the anger association game. By combining the "Purposeful"-"Spontaneous" and "Constructive"-"Destructive" dimensions we are able to generate distinct anger expression profiles: Assertion, Hostility, Passion and Rage. Hopefully, the four matrix faces and interactive scenarios provide common sense images and verbal handles for grasping and differentiating the broad and nuanced emotional-behavioral responses of anger. Clearly, this is vital for challenging the one-sided, negative image of anger. Perhaps most important, the "Four Faces of Anger" Model can be a tool for your own, as well as your clients' understanding and acceptance of the naturalness and power of aggression and anger expression. And with enhanced awareness, hopefully, we all will experience and communicate anger in a more responsible and productive manner.

Next edition I will use an organizational case study - a conflict between a problematic manager and his assistant - to illustrate the process component of the "Four Faces of Anger" Model: the matrix as an evolutionary framework for transforming self-defeating rage, proceeded by imaginative hostility, into passionate exploration and an assertive plan of action.




Purposeful Assertion Hostility
Spontaneous Passion Rage


Gorkin, Mark, "Anger or Aggression: Confronting the Passionate Edge," Legal Assistant Today, Winter 1986 


The Stress Doc illustrates how anger can be constructive or destructive depending on whether aggressive energy and motives are acknowledged and channeled or denied and projected. Role play examples illustrate the difference between Assertive "I" Messages and Blaming "You"s and offer (mostly useful) strategies for disarming dysfunctional power struggles.

Alarming "You"s or Disarming "I"s:

Power Struggles vs. Powerful Strategies -- Part I

By Mark Gorkin, LICSW

"The Stress Doc" ™

A challenging aspect of the anger skills component of my "Practicing Safe Stress" program is helping participants realize that "Assertion" is one of "The Four Faces of Anger," a model based on whether anger expression is "Constructive" or "Destructive" and "Purposeful" or "Spontaneous." (If interested, email stressdoc@aol.com for my Four Faces Model.) The difficulty for many in linking assertion and anger stems from two erroneous beliefs: a) assertion is too rational or intellectual to convey real anger and b) anger has to be loud, emotional and potentially explosive. Actually, when people don't genuinely acknowledge the aggressive component of their assertive expression, healthy anger is masked and distorted. The result is often judgmental criticism, condescending sarcasm or, even, passive-aggressive retaliation. In other words, an assertive intention regresses into a hostile defense or intimidation. And I frequently see this reactive transformation with the use of blaming "You"s over self-acknowledging, responsibility shouldering "I" messages.

Now be honest, under enough stress and frustration, aren't you occasionally a "blameaholic"? What are some of the more common, judgmental "You" messages or "acc-you-sations? How about, "It's your fault," "You make me sick," "You made me do it," "You drive me crazy," "You screwed up" (only one time, of course not…"You always screw up" or "You never do it right"), "You shouldn't think (or feel) that way," "You're too sensitive, too moody." And my all time obnoxious "You" message…"You really disappointed me!," with the guilt toxin just dripping from self-righteous lips as it surreptitiously seeps deep into the target's psyche. And the consistent use of abrasive "You" attacks has predictable consequences: such provocative communication invariably triggers an overt or covert defensive reaction, withdrawal, intimidation and/or interpersonal power struggles.

Power Struggle Exercise

In my workshops, I bring out this provocative "you" dynamic through a playful yet powerful exercise called, "You Can't Make Me!" People pair off, decide who's Person A, who's Person B. (It has nothing to do with being Type A or Type B.) I then ask participants to try to imagine one person with whom there is or there recently has been some interpersonal tension or conflict; someone who has you clenching your jaws at night or plotting strategy at 3 am. (Of course, a frequent rejoinder is, "You mean I have to choose just one person!") I encourage participants to think of the conflict as a power struggle issue. And when asked to eyeball their opposite number (actually, opposite letter) a tension in the air begins to build. People get seriously focused or start to squirm. Then come the instructions: Person A declares, "You Can't Make Me!" Person B counters with, "Oh Yes I Can (make you)." Clearly it's a clash of polar "You" messages. The antagonists are to verbal volley for about ten seconds. They can be loud and abrasive, hostile, whiny or passive-aggressive. The only limit: "You can't get out of your chair."

Body language is encouraged. And then, after a few back and forths, they can reach closure, by saying whatever they'd really like to say to their imagined foe. (X-rated language is discouraged.) However, the x-rated warning may not be sufficient. Alas, this exercise does pose a risk, especially with the wrong audience. Let me illustrate.

Unbeknownst to me, just before show time, I received word that my West Virginia mountain health spa audience was in their third day of a smoking cessation program. (Talk about, "The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Manic.") To harness some of the off the mountain wall energy, I quickly had participants pair off for the above-mentioned "You Can't Make Me" role-play. Perhaps this was not my most scintillating leadership moment. You see, with one particular male-female dyad, provocative tensions were escalating rapidly. Miss A apparently perceived a little too much sexual intonation into Mr. B's, "Oh, yes I can! (make you)" Before I could intervene Miss A picks up a glass of ice water and pours it into Mr. B's lap. Ouch. That's one way of going cold turkey (if not being one). Trust me, this guy was smoke free for the rest of the week.

This role interaction while intense is usually not so dramatic. A few participants just laugh - some feel the exercise artificial or absurd. Others laugh nervously at the prospect of projecting or receiving raw aggression. The decibel level rise in the room (usually to an ambiance of barely controlled chaos) speaks volumes about the group's involvement with the exercise. Considering the fabricated nature of the role play, why do so many fairly quickly put on their game face and register power struggle emotions and expressions? I've come up with three "C" factors:

1) Who is in "Control"? This relates to the parent-child, authority dynamic; who sets the physical and emotional boundaries, for example, regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior,

2) The second "C"-word is also a family relationship dynamic -- sibling rivalry. The key word is "Competition" - who's better, who is the favorite and, finally,

3) The dynamic of "Culture" - varying role prescriptions and expectations, differences and misunderstandings of verbal and non-verbal meaning and social protocol.

While all three "C"s can fuel intense conflict and power clashes, I suspect the most universal trigger is the issue of "Control." Why? Wrestle with this question: When do profound issues of control first surface in families?...Certainly by toilet training. The reality is we all have a history of personal and interpersonal control issues along with autonomy-intimacy boundary struggles no matter how nice or civilized, rebellious or intimidated, mature or repressed we have become.

Stress Doc's Disarming Demonstration

So how does one resist the invitation to the power dance, especially a dysfunctional struggle; how does one transcend a potential vicious cycle of interaction? By way of illustration, let's return to the "You Can't Make Me" scenario. As part of the post-role play, group reflection on the exercise segment, I select a sturdy looking audience member and ask him or her to take my offering of an invisible rope. (I learned a not soon to be forgotten lesson: if you select a female, don't ever refer to her as "a big woman." Believe me, "Never again!") As the participant gazes at me quizzically, holding the other end of the imaginary rope, I challenge my opposite to, "Pull hard; come on, give it a good pull" The public nature of the challenge invariably has my unwitting antagonist grimacing, straining and pulling intently. And just as it seems they are about to overpower me, to win this virtual-physical contest of wills and won'ts…I pose the unexpected: "What happens if I decide to 'drop the rope'?" The tension is over. My partner in conceptual crime usually grins sheepishly or mimes falling over. The audience breaks out in "aha" smiles if not "ha-ha" laughter. Instead of proving who can pull harder in some dysfunctional, ego-driven contest, one party purposefully lets go of the self-defeating game, steps outside the predictable boundary lines by dropping the rope. It's a sign of maturity, not of wimpiness.

To clinch the strategic concept another question follows: "How do you drop the rope in the "You Can't Make Me/Oh Yes I Can (make you)" Exercise? Now it's time to integrate the art and skill of letting go and employing "I" message communication. But first, let me acknowledge that using "I" messages effectively require some doing. I recall a supervisor in a team building workshop asking: "Is this an example of an "I" message?…'I think you're wrong!'" No, Ms. P that's not an "I" message; that's a sneaky, blaming "You" message. An "I" message response might be: "I disagree," "Here's what I know or what I believe," "Here's how I see it" or, even "My data says otherwise."

Okay, back to the role-play. How's this for a reply to the testy, win-lose "You can't make me"? "Whether I can or can't make you, that's not where I'm coming from. I need your help. If I'm bugging you or something's bugging you, let's talk about it. If we're going to get the project done (meet our goal, the deadline, etc.) we need to be on the same page; we need to pull together, not be pulling apart."

Drop the rope; not right or wrong. And another Stress Doc immunization-aphormation that protects against or disentangles enmeshed egos and facilitates letting go comes to mind: Difference and Disagreement =/= Disapproval and Disloyalty! And, of course, when dealing with an incorrigible dominance-submission egotist, find solace in the words of 20th c. French novelist, Andre Gide: One must allow others to be right…It consoles them for not being anything else. Words for…Practicing Safe Stress!

Stay tuned for Part II of this power struggle treatise.

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" (TM), the Internet's and America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" (TM), is a syndicated columnist and nationally recognized speaker/training consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management, Reorganizational Change, Team Building and HUMOR! For more information, call 202-232-8662.

Building on the role of "You" Vs "I" messages in power struggles in Part I, the Stress Doc now illustrates the passion and strategic purposefulness of a "higher power" response in the face of provocation. He closes with a five-step confrontation that's more than a good IDEA.


Transforming Aggression with Higher Power "I"s: Part II

An IDEAL Method of Engagement

Part I of this two-part series explored how anger can be constructive or destructive depending on whether aggressive energy and motives are acknowledged and channeled or denied and projected. A role-play example illustrated the difference between Assertive "I" Messages and Blaming "You"s. In addition, a "drop the rope" strategy was provided for tactfully disarming dysfunctional power struggles. However, "I" messages don't just gracefully disarm or mollify an antagonist. When delivered with passion and purpose, whether firmly or quietly, strategic "I"s can, in communicational judo-like fashion, use hurtful or aggressive energy to unbalance an antagonist. You might even knock an adversary off their high horse or hostile path. Here's an instructive tale.

Disarm Hostility with Passionate Honesty

Years back, I was consulting with the supervisory staff of the Department of Human Services of a rural Maryland County. Because of the distance, the workshops were held monthly. The previous month, a male supervisor had confronted, somewhat pointedly, a female colleague during a drawing exercise. I belatedly realized we had not fully processed the engagement and decided to revisit the encounter. At the following meeting, the male supervisor, in charge of case management, expressed appreciation when I acknowledged my sense of "unfinished business." He recognized that his actions could have been construed as an attack and he apologized.

The female supervisor, working in accounting, after perfunctorily acknowledging the apology, did not want to discuss the issue further. She was more concerned about the lack of clear communication and insufficient cooperation with her supervisory colleagues and their staff. Forms and reports were not being completed in a timely and thorough manner.

We discussed this and other issues and then took a break. During the recess, I approached the female supervisor. Realizing that some people prefer not to open up conflicts in a group forum, I again asked if she had any thoughts about the previous drawing exercise encounter or earlier discussion. Immediately I elicited an incredulous air and jaundiced eye: "You sure know how to talk things to death, don't you." Now that's an attacking "You" message. After recoiling, then recovering from that sudden punch in the psychic gut, I managed a reply: "I just think clearing the air of unresolved conflict is important." I reaffirmed her expressed concern about communication breakdowns and wanting more cooperation from the staff.

are ready to expel the "B"-word: "You witch!"

(I was always better at rhyming than spelling.)

Somehow, my higher power descended. From a

painful grimace sprung an impassioned, "That hurts.

I feel like I've been stabbed in the back!" Finally, I

had her attention. Having instinctively pushed back,

now there was purpose, if not method, to my madness:

"I don't think you realize how powerful a communicator you can be.

But when you shoot out those darts you're pretty intimidating. You

will turn folks off, or scare them off. Cooperation isn't going to be

the first thing on peoples' minds."

In hindsight, I had used an effective confrontation. I immediately and visually let her know her attacks were not acceptable. I demonstrated the power of letting go of a "Tough John Wayne or Rambo" persona; I acknowledged feeling hurt. Her lashing out wasn't just self-protective and dismissive. Also, I had used an "I" message to spotlight the hostile nature and cutting impact of her words and tone: "I feel like I've been stabbed in the back."

At the same time, I managed to provide a little ego stroking by acknowledging that she was a powerful communicator. And, in fact, this somewhat reserved woman was not fully aware of her passive-aggressive and offensive style when dealing with conflict, nor of her potential for intimidation and inflicting pain. Her modus operandi: I feel threatened, so therefore I'm entitled to react. (Reaction comes from a threatened place, a place fired by old fears and critical voices; a response comes from your center, a place of integrity, clarity and present-focus. For more on reaction and response, see I.8, "Disarming a Critical Aggressor.")

I was pretty clean and clear with my anger using an immediate, graphic and emotion-laden response. I also explained the consequences of her behavior, even managing to provide some ego-boosting and face-saving observation along with my constructive criticism. When giving feedback, try to combine the bad news with some good news, if at all possible. And the impact was noticeable. For the remainder of the workshop, this supervisor was positively engaged with the group and me.

The Doc's 5 Step Constructive Confrontation

Let me close this lesson with a Five Step Approach to Effective "I" Messages using a hypothetical exchange between a supervisor and an employee to illustrate this sequential process. The Supervisor (S) encounters Employee (E) in the hall. S. has not been able to get feedback from E. on the status of an important work project. The scenario raises key communication/confrontation issues as well as follow-up statements and questions.


Use an "I" Statement, Question or Observation

Begin your exchange with an "I" message: "I'm concerned," "I'm confused," or "I'm frustrated." Also acceptable as a leading question: "What the heck is going on?" (As long as you control your volume, you can even say "hell" if your perplexity is truly justified ;-). But don't use four letter words to intimidate or to exploit a power differential.) Observational comments can be effective: "I noticed you broke the pencil. Are you upset about something?"

S: Hey, E., I need to talk with you. I'm frustrated (or confused; again, depending on the interpersonal context you may need to be more or less tactful).

Describe the Problem Specifically

S: I've asked you three times this week for the status of the systems report and I haven't received the report or any response. What's going on here?

Avoid provocative, judgmental "acc-you-sations": "Why are you avoiding me?" or "You never get your work in on time."


Explain Your Upset -- Effects and Expectations

a) Effects. S: Not having your report, I wasn't able to present the latest data at the branch meeting. We had to postpone making a decision that is time-sensitive. ("And you made me look like a fool in front of the other supervisors." No, resist such language. That's a blaming "You" message.)

b) Expectations. Express clearly and firmly your needs, desires or expectations to remedy the problematic situation.

S: We really need the data. I want to meet tomorrow morning at 9:00 to discuss where you are with the project. I want us to establish a realistic time line for completion.

Acknowledge Other and Ask for Input

Explore where the other person is coming from; how do they see their workload demands on time and energy, etc.

S:  I know you are working on several important projects concurrently.  Tell me what's on your plate.  Then we'll need to set priorities and upgrade the importance of this branch data project.  If you are having a hard time juggling priorities or if you anticipate a deadline problem, I’d to know ahead of time.

Understandably, people often ask why I don't initiate this problem-solving encounter from this more empathic, less assertive, perspective.  It's a good question.  Having lived in Washington, DC these past nine years influences my answer.  Frankly, I see too many folks impatient, under stress, caught up in their own self-importance, who say things like, "I know you've got a lot of stuff on your plate, but can't you get that work on Project B done!"  And it is said less as a question and more with a condemning tone.  This kind of "scarcasm" will only escalate tensions.  When folks are under stress or feeling time-pressured, I'd rather they not cover up their frustration with an intellectualized, pseudo concern.  Use an "I" message to be up front and clear with your concern or upset.  Then, genuinely thank the person for listening to you (and your three "I" message steps).  Remember, it's not easy listening to direct critical feedback. 

Now, having unloaded some steam, you can more cleanly and compassionately acknowledge the other's workload, conflicting priorities, time lines, etc. and, ultimately, give them a chance to be a problem-solving collaborator.  (In addition, this process is effective with a pattern of less than satisfactory work performance.  With documentation and these intervention steps, you can let E. know, in a less emotional and more professional manner, your objective concern and the concrete consequences for continuing problematic behavior.)

S:  I really would like your help in problem-solving.  Where are the obstacles?  From your perspective, what needs to be done next?  Let's also do some longer range planning to anticipate similar bottle jams and to keep us on the same page.  In fact, I'd like to meet once/week until we both are confident you have reasonable control over the various project elements.

Explore where the other person is coming from; how do they see their workload demands on time and energy, etc.

S: I know you are working on several important projects concurrently. Tell me what's on your plate. Then we'll need to set priorities and upgrade the importance of this branch data project. If you are having a hard time juggling priorities or if you anticipate a deadline problem, I want to know ahead of time.

Listen, Learn and Let Go

And once you've engaged in the first four steps, having cleaned up your inner static, you can do more active and objective listening.  Up till now you've been focusing on your feelings, the effects of the other's actions, and what response you want from the other person.  Now it's time to not only listen but also acknowledge, when appropriate, that you hadn't fully understood the other's position or perspective.  Let the other know that you will make modifications in your attitude and actions.  So there's a learning curve for you as well.

And finally, another real benefit of this active listening process is that you are less likely to hold on to grudges or resentments toward your "antagonist."  You are now ready to let go of any existing anger, hurt or questionable assumptions.

So, a good IDEA now becomes a communicational IDEAL.  This acronym becomes an interactive process for replacing aggression with assertion by employing "I" messages and eliminating blaming "You"s, allowing clarity to subdue hostility. Now you understand how conflict, genuinely and maturely engaged, can turn antagonists into allies.  And, of course, you will also be...Practicing Safe Stress!


Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, and training/OD consultant for a myriad of corporations and government agencies. Recently interviewed by the BBC, the Doc is a syndicated writer and the author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression. In 2003, Mark received the inaugural National Association of Social Workers-Metro-DC Chapter’s Social Work Entrepreneur Award. The Doc is also America Online’s "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City. See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com. Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource. For more info on the Doc’s speaking and training programs and products, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662