When I feel really angry I have an impression my body is too small and I might burst and nonviolent communication is probably the last thing on my mind! I don’t enjoy the sensation but I can’t deny it’s a very real and powerful experience. Anger can so easily lead to violence if, instead of managing anger effectively, I allow it to use me.

Learning how to harness anger is a skill I’m learning and, I believe, important for a nonviolent lifestyle.

We all develop our own ways to manage the adrenalin and stirred up passion that comes as part of the anger package. I was raised to believe that ‘nice people don’t get angry’ so my approach, for many years, was to suppress it whenever anger reared its head. The problem, of course, is I still feel anger sometimes and internalising it turns the violence in on myself and stores up all manner of health and psychological problems.

Another approach could be to give full and violent expression to my anger. Losing my temper in this way has happened a few times in my life.  These cathartic explosions tend to damage those around me and I feel terrible about it afterwards. I know many people say the opposite, that they feel just great after. Well, usually a build-up of pressure feels uncomfortable and any release feels good, like peeing after a full bladder!

My question is how can I use anger peacefully and effectively?

Step 1 Stop and read the signs

“Seeing red with anger”

  • Pause
  • Acknowledge anger as a friend trying to tell me something
  • Own my anger

Anger, as all unpleasant emotions, is a signal that something requires attention. Usually anger warns me an external event is not in harmony with my needs and gives an impulse to take action. Emotional intelligence includes recognising and accurately reading emotional signs and not allowing them to blind me. Usually a deep breath or two gives me the pause I need to listen to the message behind the anger.

A common misreading of the signal is to believe someone is at fault and is making me angry.

No-one has the power to force any emotional state or sensation onto me, including anger. My internal world is about my own values and how they interact with the actions or inactions of someone else.

2 Open up my brain

“Blinded by anger”

  • Examine my thinking

When I’m angry my thinking is chaotic, cloudy and exaggerated. Have you ever felt furious on reading an unpleasant mail, for example, only to come back to it the next day and wonder why you were so riled up?

When I stop for those few seconds and quickly review the thoughts jumbling around in my head, I find many such as ‘Should not’, “Can’t”, “Wrong”, “Bad” all directed at the object of my anger. My own judgemental thoughts are fuelling, maybe even triggering, my fury and pointing it at a person or even an inanimate object. The actions of others are not always innocent or well intentioned, of course, but my anger tends to add a particular veneer, even when it’s not there. When I do this I have a hard time seeing the human being in the other and the more likely I am to react violently.

I’m not trying to change my thinking, just straighten out the confused mess. By observing my thoughts for a moment, I take back control from them and I’m likely to notice the intensity of the anger softening a little.

I create space for peaceful action.

3 Identify what’s REALLY going on

“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” Marcus Aurelius

  • What are the facts?
  • Which needs of mine are crying out?
  • What possibilities do I have for immediate action?

Before responding to my anger’s call for action I find it sensible to make sure I know what’s really going on – externally and internally.

I find the following questions helpful:

a) What would a camera record if it was filming the situation I’m immersed in?

b) What needs of mine are asking for attention – (security? peace? respect? understanding? freedom? etc.)?

c) What feelings and needs of the other person are driving their actions?

d) What do I want to happen (ideally at least 3 different options)?

As I ask myself these questions I often find the anger transforms into something else such as fear, disappointment, frustration or confusion. These are less intense and easier to harness but I can still keep the passion.

Sometimes I notice my compassion for myself and for the other person comes through.

4 Communicate my intentions peacefully!

“Speak when you are angry–and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” Laurence J. Peter

  • Check my intention
  • Choose my action carefully
  • Communicate what I want to happen (or protect myself or others)

Nothing requires me to say or do anything, although the energy of anger can be pretty irresistible. First I check that my intention is peaceful and I care equally about my needs and those of the other. If there is any desire to hurt the other, I go back to the previous steps until the desire has gone.

Once I’m clear about my peaceful intention I then decide what action to take. This could be to say something or to take protective action (which could be to run away!).

If I choose to say something I want to choose my words carefully to avoid judgement, criticism or any form of attack (I’ll probably get the same back) and clearly request what I want to happen. A request NOT to do something leaves room for interpretation about what I do want, so I avoid that. Also a wish for the future lacks immediacy, so I put the request in the present moment.

My anger gives my message a kick so that it’s much more likely I’m going to be taken seriously.

5 Developing the new habit

  • Reflect regularly

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, a change requires doing something differently.My response to anger comes from a habit that’s developed through my whole life and I’ve not yet found a way to change overnight. An ingrained habit such as my anger strategy probably requires a bit of patient poking around – like trying to remove a deeply embedded splinter.

If you choose to follow some or all of the steps above I advise patience!

As a first step you might use the approach to analyse and pull apart a recent situation where you felt angry. Make a commitment that every time you feel angry, over the next two weeks, you’ll pick that apart too – once you’ve calmed down. The more frequently you look into it the easier you’ll find it.

After a few situations you’ll notice the cool-off period gets shorter until eventually you don’t need a cool-off period at all. You’ll find you are catching the anger early and dealing with it as it arises. With practice you’ve befriended and are managing anger, it’s stopped controlling you and you have a powerful tool in your hands.