In modern Western society at least, words such as “anger” or “angry” conjure up negative visions of loss of self-control, threats of violence or possibly a term such as “anger management”. In the public sphere or the workplace, the notion of “letting off steam” may be a thing of the past. In an age where the “acceptable behaviour” bar is set high, society seems to have lost sight of how to analyse and understand anger and invariably it is interpreted negatively. The net effect is that in all spheres of day-to-day life people who are aggrieved and perhaps not unreasonably seek redress may ultimately end up being deprived of an opportunity to express themselves.
Perhaps in the same way that there are two types of argument, one akin to confrontational dialogue and the other, a process of discussion, there may be two kinds of anger. The obvious one of these is the “angry outburst” involving loss of self-control and unacceptable or inappropriate behaviour.
Aristotle saw anger as quite acceptable as a means of communication, (possibly in circumstances where people who have been wronged and hitherto not listened to) and went so far as to suggest that a certain appropriate level of anger – directed at the right things and at the right time – was an element of virtuosity. Aristotle saw anger as a way of expressing self-respect and an attunement to injustice. In taking up his views I have identified the concepts of “acceptable” anger and “unacceptable” anger.
If Aristotle is correct the unacceptably angry person may be avoided, ignored or censored whereas the person whose anger is measured and restrained and keeps the emotions in check will be listened to and appropriately acknowledged.
Would that it was all so simple. As mediators readily understand, the dividing line between “acceptable” anger and “unacceptable” anger is a very fine one which can give rise to transgressions particularly in circumstances where threats have been made or there has been bullying or harassment. Anger manifests in different ways with some people becoming very expressive and others sullen and unresponsive. Anger can be spontaneous, possibly in the form of a “getting it off one’s chest” outburst which actually may help to calm an angry person and be a springboard for productive dialogue. Anger can be incremental with levels of increase related to a sense or repeated sense of not being listened to. It can be a galvanising influence but equally, even where conveyed in the most moderate of terms, an expression of anger can prove to be very negative.
In the context of the civil justice system, in most instances, an aggrieved person’s lawyer or other adviser does an excellent job and the responsible court or tribunal will listen and conduct itself sympathetically. However, even allowing for this, the aggrieved person may still not ever be given the full explanation or apology that has been requested. Particularly in cases where there is an out-of-court settlement, a wrongdoer may remain several steps from the process and may never understand the full extent of the harm that may have been perpetrated. Ironically, even in circumstances where an aggrieved person is given licence by a court or tribunal to self-express, he or she may still feel constrained and unable to take up the opportunity that has been offered.
Civil mediation and other forms of ADR readily accommodate Aristotle’s “acceptably understandably angry person”. Mediation is not a forum for inappropriate behaviour and as is noted above an expression of even acceptable anger may not turn out to be beneficial. However, particularly in the civil mediation model used in the UK, there will be provision for potential private sessions in which people can quite acceptably “let off steam” and, provided the blatantly inappropriate is avoided, express themselves fully. The mediator acts as an empathetic facilitator and in most instances will be able to ensure that angry people do not forget themselves or overindulge their feelings.
Accordingly, with the benefit of this input the angry or frustrated person will be able to reflect and try to find the means to express her/himself and thereby convey what may be deep-seated anger in a constructive way that others involved in the process will readily understand. The mediator will ask appropriate, open questions and thereby enable an aggrieved client to think things through, to explain the basis of any underlying concerns and ultimately, to put matters in perspective.
What about “unacceptably angry people”, possibly including those who, without resorting to profanities, nonetheless express themselves very strongly either by giving offence or perhaps inadvertently, by coming across as intimidating? Are they to be deprived of the opportunity of expressing their feelings in mediation?
In a very small number of cases the answer to this question may be yes. However, in practice it will be possible for most unacceptably angry people to take part in a private session and be listened to. Such people may have been deprived previous opportunities to explain matters and may be genuinely aggrieved.
Save in a very small number of instances, and perhaps even for the first time, such people will be able to express themselves and may well find the process of being listened to be a calming process. In some instances, e.g. in circumstances where for whatever reason the parties to an individual mediation feel unable to sit in the same room together, the mediator will able to convey messages from one to another. Even in so-called difficult cases this can be sufficient for the unacceptably angry person to realise that s/he is being listened to. Equally it could well be a springboard for a facilitated discussion during which professional niceties are observed and those involved can interact with one another. This is particularly important in the context of drawing up an agreement where it is particularly helpful to have the parties sitting round a table working together.
In accordance with standard, tried and tested practice, the mediator will have firmly, gently and even handedly made it clear that appropriate standards of behaviour must be maintained. Because mediation tends to bring out the best in people, in many instances, a mediator will be able to initiate constructive dialogue. The fact that in all probability an individual mediation has been convened promptly and at moderate cost will be a great reassurance and, in most instances, those participating will readily understand that if the process fails the opportunity for effective, meaningful resolution may be lost.
Equally, the acceptably angry or even non-angry participant will be reassured and perhaps pleasantly surprised by any behavioural improvements that the unacceptably angry party now shows. Because mediation is not an alternative to legal or other professional advice, parties to individual disputes always have the option of consulting their advisers, something that will be a further source of reassurance and may help to ensure that their expectations are tempered with a degree of realism.
Accordingly, the answer to the question posed in the title to this piece is “yes.” Mediation really can be a form of anger management and a timely, cost-effective one at that.
Principal Director of ASMADR, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.