Dealing with an Angry Client

by Diane Neumann


“Who are the most difficult clients for you to work with?” the woman asked.

“The angry ones,” the mediator said,” the ones who get mad and yell.”

“Are they the ones who dash your hope?” The woman asked

“No, they’re the ones who give me hope.”

Mediators deal with very angry men and women – those in the painful throes of divorce. The expression of anger can be viewed in two different ways; one, that anger is a helpful release of feelings and should be expressed, and two, that the expression of anger is a destructive emotion, and should not be expressed.

The Biblical history of mankind is filled with anger. In the Bible, anger was openly expressed when the Lord cursed the serpent, Adam, and Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. In the story of Cain and Abel, there is even more anger. “And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell . . . and Cain . . . rose up against Abel.” And of course, “Be not hasty in the spirit to be angry, for anger resteth in the bosom of fools” (Ecclesiastics 7:9).

Historically, Western thinking held that an individual was not only capable of controlling anger, indeed, she should control her anger. Anger was considered a destructive emotion and one that all healthy, civilized individuals should not express.

Freud’s view was that anger was destructive to the individual. He described an unconscious rage that was directed toward everyone, especially toward one’s mother. Anger began in infancy and continued throughout childhood, and adult triggers rekindled the child’s anger that had been bottled up all those years. Freud introduced the world to the concept of catharsis. “Catharsis”, he wrote, “empties the emotional reservoirs.” Today, the cathartic theory persists, and holds that we can discharge anger by intense exercise, playing football, watching a violent movie, or just screaming.

In opposition to Freud’s theory of destructive energy, Darwin saw anger and aggression as biological adapters, which help warn one’s own body that it must defend or attack. A shift to viewing anger in a positive light begins with the works of Charles Darwin. In his Descent of Man, he explained that animals have emotions; that animals feel pride, shame, boredom, jealousy and anger. Darwin believed that an animal’s emotion served as a biological adapter, which was to prepare the animal to respond to external danger. Anger, he wrote, served the same function in humans; it was a protective reaction in response to a threat, an instinctive response.

Thomas Jefferson counseled, ‘When angry, count ten before you speak. When very angry, a hundred.’ Mark Twain, obviously moved by Jefferson’s wisdom, wrote, ‘When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.’

Over the years, society’s attitude has changed once again. The pendulum has swung from controlling anger to one that encourages it. Leading proponents of the “let it all out theory”, psychology expressed the sentiment, ‘let it out or it’ll hurt you’. On an emotional level, the proponents of this theory maintained that if anger wasn’t expressed, it simmered and eventually erupted. Our contemporary wisdom says, ‘Don’t hold it in or you’ll get a heart attack or ulcer. Let it all out. Express yourself freely.’” (Shaub, Joseph. “Free-floating hostility can cost you plenty – Learn to manage your anger before it buries you.” Barrister Magazine. Fall 1995. Page 15.)

Pent-up anger was blamed for causing all sorts of problems. It was scientifically proven to cause coronary disease, and anger was linked to a number of physical and emotional problems. Psychoanalyst Theodore Isaac Rubin, author of The Angry Book, is a leading voice from this perspective, “a slush fund of accumulated unexpressed anger builds up in the body, just yearning for the chance to produce high blood pressure, disease, anxiety, depression.”

Carol Tavris,’ in her book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, tells the story “On the Train To Brindaun”:

“On the train to Brindaun a Swami sits beside a common man who asks him if indeed he has attained self-mastery, as the name “Swami” implies.

‘I have,’ says the Swami.

‘And have you mastered anger?’

‘I have.’

‘Do you mean to say that you have mastered anger?’

‘I have.’

‘You mean you can control your anger?’

‘I can.’

‘And you do not feel anger?’

‘I do not.’

‘Is this the truth, Swami?’

‘It is.’

After a silence the man asks again, ‘Do you really feel that you have controlled your anger?’

‘I have, as I told you,’ the Swami answers.

‘Then do you mean to say you never feel anger, even . . .’

‘You are going on and on – what do you want?’ the Swami shouts. ‘Are you a fool?’

‘When I have told you . . .’

‘Oh, Swami, this is anger. You have not mas-’

‘Ah, but I have,’ the Swami interrupts. ‘Have you not heard about the abused snake? Let me tell you a story.’

‘On a path that went by a village in Bengal, there lived a cobra who used to bite people on their way to worship at the temple there. As the incidents increased, everyone became fearful, and many refused to go to the temple. The Swami who was the master at the temple was aware of the problem and took it upon himself to put an end to it. Taking himself to where the snake dwelt, he used a mantra to call the snake to him and bring it into submission. The Swami then said to the snake that it was wrong to bite the people who walked along the path to worship and made him promise sincerely that he would never do it again. Soon it happened that the snake was seen by a passerby upon the path, and it made no move to bite him. Then it became known that the snake had somehow been made passive and people grew unafraid. It was not long before the village boys were dragging the poor snake along behind them as they ran laughing here and there. When the temple Swami passed that way again, he called the snake to see if he had kept his promise. The snake humbly and miserably approached the Swami who exclaimed, ‘You are bleeding? Tell me how this has come to be.’ The snake was near tears and blurted out that he had been abused ever since he was caused to make his promise to the Swami.’ ‘I told you not to bite,’ said the Swami, ‘but I did not tell you not to hiss.’” The author writes “Many people, like the Swami’s cobra, confuse the hiss with the bite.” She sees anger as the “human hiss”.

Travis notes that there are several definitions of anger, though one thing that we all agree on is that we know it when we see it. Anger is something we feel. There’s a reason why we feel it, and anger always deserves our respect and attention. We all have a right to everything we feel—everyone does—and anger is no exception. Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate. “Do I have a right to be angry?” is similar to asking, ‘Do I have a right to be thirsty?’ After all, I just had a glass of water 15 minutes ago!’”

We are familiar with the physical characteristics of expressing anger;

  1. Muscles tighten
  2. Grind teeth
  3. Eyes glare and narrow
  4. Jaw clenches
  5. Fists clench
  6. Change in body temperature (cold or hot bodily sensations)
  7. Change in skin (numb or prickly skin)
  8. Violence
  9. Crying

This last expression mystifies many people as tears are considered a sign of sadness, rather than recognized as a possible expression of anger. “One of the commonest means of expressing anger is crying.” (Madow, M.D., Leo. Anger: How to Recognize and Cope with It. Charles Scribner and Sons: New York. 1972. Page 35.)

WHY DO PEOPLE GET ANGRY?

More than one theory persists. One complete list that I have found are the four most common reasons for anger, which include the following:

  1. Someone broke the rules, “You’re cheating”
  2. Someone isn’t acting the way she should (i.e. the way you think she should), “You shouldn’t act like that in front of my grandmother”
  3. Someone did or said something wrong, “You called me a bitch”
  4. Someone didn’t do or say something “You never thanked me”.

Psychologist Stanley G. Hall is recognized as one of the fathers of modern psychology in the western world. In l894, Hall conducted an anger survey and sent questionnaires to 2,184 people. From this questionnaire, he defined three categories as causes of anger:

  1. Stupid, inanimate objects: such as pens that don’t write.
  2. Special aversions: such as earrings on men, short hair on women, flashy ties, and too much jewelry, (and this was in 1894!).
  3. One person’s treatment of another, such as being unfair, cheating, or insulting.

Rarely does the event itself cause anger, instead, it is the interpretation of that event. For example, if I am walking down the street, and someone pushes into me, I’ll react differently based on my reading of the event. If I think she intentionally pushed me, I’ll feel angry. If I felt that she accidentally bumped into me, I’ll feel irritated rather than angry. It’s an old idea “What disturbs people’s minds is not events but their judgment on events.” (Epictetus, 1st Century A.D.) If I think that I would fault by walking against the flow of traffic, I’ll feel guilty.

For years, it was assumed that the cause of anger was frustration. “More simply stated, whenever we feel blocked in getting what we really desire and need for our well-being, our survival, we tend to become angry and are inclined to fight for our right to exist.” (Gelinas, Paul J. Coping With Anger.)

Perhaps the best evidence for showing that frustration does not automatically produce anger comes from the psychologists who study the topic. When they want to get their subjects angry, they rarely frustrate them, instead, they insult the subjects.

Taking a different view, another theory lists overall causes of anger:

  1. Organic – The individual is born pathologically angry.
  2. Injury – The individual sustains a physical injury that causes angry outbursts.
  3. Genetic – A person inherits a genetic trait from a parent that predisposes that person to anger.
  4. Cultural – The society encourages the expression of anger based on the assumptions that anger in this specific situation is okay.

ORGANIC CAUSE

True pathology as a cause of rage is rare. Actually, it’s a genetic characteristic.

INJURY CAUSE

Injury such as being struck in the head can be a cause of rage, but similar to organic, it is a rare cause.

GENETIC CAUSES

Harvard pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and Freedman developed assessment tests of infant reactions that could be given to any newborn. The researchers tested twenty-four Chinese and twenty-four Caucasian babies in a San Francisco hospital when the infants were thirty-three hours old.

Results:

The result of the study showed that Caucasian babies:

Cried more easily,
Were harder to console, and
Immediately turned its face to the side if laid down on their face.
The Chinese babies cried less, were calmer and less excitable than the Anglo babies. Chinese babies, adapted to the position they were placed in. For example, if an infant was put face down in the crib, the infant stayed in that position. Whereas the Caucasian infant turned its head.

Freedman went on to study babies all over the world: specifically in Nigeria, Bali, Italy, Sweden, Australia, and the Navaho. He found that Navaho babies calmly accepted the tribal custom of being strapped to a cradleboard for the first six months of life, while Caucasian mothers in the community had babies who cried and resisted the cradleboard.

CULTURAL CAUSES

Events which cause anger differ from culture to culture. Tavris provides an interesting story. Notice your own response, which is a good example of cultural differences that cause people to feel or express anger:

“The young wife leaves her house one afternoon to draw water from the local well. She saunters down the main street, chatting amiably with her neighbors, as her husband watches from their porch. On her return from the well, a stranger stops her and asks for a cup of water. She obliges, and in fact invites the man home for dinner. He accepts. The husband, wife and guest spend a pleasant evening together, and eventually the husband puts the lamp out and retires to bed. The wife also retires to bed – with the guest. In the morning, the husband leaves early to bring back some breakfast for the household. Upon his return, he finds his wife again making love with the visitor.”

The point of the story is when does someone get angry? A husband will most likely react according to the culture he is a part of.

Answers (according to psychologist Ralph Hupka):

  1. A century ago, a Pawnee Indian husband would, get angry and bewitch any man who dared to request a cup of water from his wife.
  2. An Ammassalik Eskimo husband who wanted to be a proper host invites his guest to have sex with his wife; he signals his invitation by putting out the lamp. The husband would be angry, however, if he found his wife having sex with a man in circumstances other than the lamp invitation.
  3. An American husband would get very angry.
  4. A husband of the polyandrous Toda tribe of Southern India at the turn of the century would find the whole sequence of events perfectly normal. The Todas practiced a custom that allowed both spouses to take lovers.
  5. A Southern European husband would become so angry that he might very well kill the guest.
  6. A frequent comment at workshops I’ve given elicit another reaction – “what about the wife? She’s sure to get angry when she’s “given” to the guest without anyone asking her and that her feelings were not considered.

ANOTHER CULTURAL DIFFERENCE

Two neighbors have a dispute over a common fence.

An American way to resolve the dispute would be for the neighbor who is upset about the broken fence to talk to their neighbor who owns the fence. If the fence is not repaired, he yells at the neighbor. If he still isn’t satisfied, he goes to court. If he doesn’t want to go to court, or if the court finds against him, he could smash the fence with his car.

A Middle Eastern cultural response to the same situation might be that the neighbor who is upset over the condition of the fence does nothing. He broods over the situation for a long, long time. Suddenly, one night he burns the fence down. In this culture, the act of burning down the fence would start discussions and negotiations, (and possibly court proceedings).

PROBLEMS THAT ANGER CAUSES

There is a strong belief that suppressed anger creates all sorts of problems. The most common belief is that anger causes physical health problems, such as high blood pressure and ulcers

Dr. Meyer Friedman is a cardiologist who was the first physician to describe the association of Type-A behavior and heart disease. The characteristics of a Type A Personality are hard driving and competitive, yet the majority doesn’t get heart disease. The Framingham, Massachusetts Heart Study found that those who suppress their hostility (not Type A personality) were the ones who developed heart disease.

Psychological problems are thought to be caused by stress. Professionals note that depression is a fairly common mental illness, exhibited more by women than men. Clinical depression is anger turned inward, so that anger expressed toward yourself results in depression.

Psychological/physical problems have become recognized as serious problems only in the last ten years. Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, are diagnosed more frequently. Here, the population is predominately women, and within that category, the vast majority are adolescents. Today, there are more advanced tools to diagnose, but more likely it is due the professionals realizing that it is a serious problem Many Professionals in the field hold that this illness is the result of bottled-up and repressed anger.

Illegal activities have long been known to have anger as a main component, and there is some consensus that anger may be the underlying cause of behavior such as murder, rape and stealing.

Anger is recognized in these serious, physical crimes.

The two primary purposes of expressing anger; is to tell someone what you are angry about, and the second is to get someone to act in a specific way. Two major reasons for the quick expressions of anger are, first, that the individual has accumulated so much anger that only a little more is needed to set him off, and second the expression of anger has helped him to get what he wants, so he continues to use it.

GENDER DIFFERENCES

“In all mammalian species, from moose to man, the male is the more aggressive sex.” (Moyer, Kenneth E.: “Chapter 18: Sex Differences in Aggression.” Pages 335.)

There are a multitude of studies examining gender differences in feeling anger, and expressing anger. Many of the studies showed that men and women felt anger in the same amount and to the same degree. However, research has supported the theory that men express their anger more than women. Many who agree with this theory offer cultural reasons rather than biological, though some biological differences were noted. Women who openly express anger, however, are considered aggressive and “unladylike”. When a woman gets angry, she is likely to be dismissed as irrational or a bitch.

“Collier (1982) reported that the sources of women’s anger were numerous, including powerlessness, feminine stereotypes, economic dependency, discrimination, and other general devaluation of women. She also indicated that society routinely teaches women not to express anger or, in some instances, to not even feel it. Thus, Collier believed that most women are taught to hide or suppress anger, or if necessary, to release anger indirectly.” (Kopper, Beverly A. and Epperson, Douglas L. “Women and Anger: Sex and Sex-Role Comparisons in the Expression of Anger.”)

“At present we know little about which factors are most influential in the generation of anger, but the literature suggests two possible variables. The first is power: Our perception of our own power relative to others may influence our expectations of dealing with interpersonal conflicts and the anger that may ensue. Power is defined in this study as the sense that one’s wishes will be met, that one’s actions on the environment will produce their intended objective (Huston, 1983,), and is produced via group status. The second factor is gender: Behavioral expectations based on gender encompass many aspects of interpersonal relationships including rules that govern gender-appropriate affect.” (p. 1721) (Strachan, Catherine E. and Dutton, Donald G.: University of British Columbia. “The Role of Power and Gender in Anger Responses to Sexual Jealousy.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology.)

CONCLUSION

As mediators, we can personally attest to the fact that most of our client’s feelings and expressions of anger are very intense during the time of divorce. It is significant that the gender expectation for woman in which they are not expected to not express anger – changes dramatically during divorce. Suddenly, divorcing women are supported in being angry at their husbands—especially if he is leaving for another woman. As noted, men have long received society’s approval to express anger, and this support also increases during divorce.

The expression of anger is difficult for all of us, yet mediation is a safe place to deal with such anger.


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