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6 Ways the Most Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Anger

They avoid being passive-aggressive at all costs.

Key points

  • Passive aggression is an indirect jab at someone.
  • Both aggressive and passive-aggressive behaviors drive people away.
  • Becoming more aware of one's anger can help curb passive aggression.
Source: N.Melanjina/Shutterstock

Most of us don’t like confrontation, but it’s a fact of life that we can’t run from forever. We have to assert ourselves, our boundaries, and our needs — and others have to do the same with us.

There are a million terrible ways of expressing your frustration. Here’s how to do so with better emotional intelligence to get the results you actually want.

The Role of Anger

Anger — both direct and indirect (or passive) — is meant to communicate something important. But it can also drive people away. What you really want is to connect and be heard, but when anger is involved, the result is often just the opposite. Aggression in any form is the biggest impediment to emotionally intelligent communication.

People often think passive-aggressive communication is somehow better or “nicer.” It’s not. In fact, it may actually be worse. Unfortunately, it’s what many people resort to, to their own detriment. The French have a wonderful expression for passive aggression: sous-entendu. It means “what is understood underneath.” In other words, you’re saying one thing that sounds innocent, but really means another that can actually be quite vicious. If you are looking for a true and meaningful connection and understanding with another person, you need a better strategy.

What does passive aggression look like in practice? It's an indirect jab at someone that says it all. Twitter is rampant with it. When model Chrissy Teigen went out on a dinner date with her husband John Legend shortly after having a baby, she was tagged by followers as being a bad mother. Some tweets were directly aggressive, others passive-aggressive, like this one:

Source: Twitter

Research shows that a hostile communication style will drive people away: Whether you’re aggressive or passive-aggressive, people will react negatively to you. They will feel uncomfortable, they won’t understand what is going on, and they’ll want to get away from you.

Here’s how you can communicate anger without destroying your relationships.

Some cultures are perceived as tending to be extremely direct — think New Yorkers, for example. What you see is oftentimes what you get. If you’re from an environment where people don't tend to communicate this way, a direct communication style may seem harsh and rude.

Other cultures are seen as more indirect. Many perceive the French communication style as typically passive-aggressive. In parts of the Southern or Midwestern U.S., propriety is valued over directness. People tend to act more congenially. However, where the culture tends to value being “nice” more, you also have to handle the “ice” more.

Fundamentally, though, neither of these approaches necessarily leads to the constructive results you want.

When you are angry, you need to express it. But both aggressive and passive-aggressive behaviors will drive people further away from you. Here’s what to try instead:

1. Tune in to what's really going on, and become self-aware.

If you’re fuming, wait it out. Though you’ll be in a hurry to dish your frustration out (directly or indirectly) to someone's face, or in a text or email, your communication won’t come out right. When we’re angry, that’s all we can think about — our brain is hijacked. We know that when the emotion centers of the brain are highly active, we have a harder time thinking logically. Cool your flames, and you'll see more clearly and communicate more effectively. Breathe, take a walk, distract yourself with a funny movie, meditate, exercise, pray — anything to help you regain composure and perspective.

2. Understand your emotion.

Figure out if you’re really angry. Maybe you’re just sad or hurt. Often we think we’re frustrated with a person or situation, but the real situation is that we’re actually feeling pain, rejection, or sorrow. Once you figure out what your emotion is, that’s what you will want to communicate instead.

3. Figure out if you're misplacing blame.

It’s too easy to blame a situation or person for how we feel. You’re hungry, tired, overworked, stressed, or unhappy in your marriage, and then you assign all the blame to the first person or situation you encounter; probably someone close to you. In the process, you drive away the people you love the most — making things even worse. What's more, you're still frustrated, since they weren't the true cause of your anger.

4. Get curious.

Focusing on why you’re angry, sad, or frustrated keeps you focused on yourself. Research shows that negative emotions make us self-centered. There is no room for another person’s perspective, because you’re so locked in your own view of things. You probably aren’t even considering what may be going on with the other person. This is when you need to bring in a very helpful emotion: Curiosity. Become curious as to why the other person is acting a certain way. Instead of confronting them, ask them with genuine interest why they are doing what they are doing. Most of us don’t run around with evil intentions — but many of us do make mistakes and hurt or anger others accidentally. Chances are, the person you are angry with is not purposely trying to hurt you. Try to understand them before you assign blame.

5. Have compassion.

When you make room for another person’s point of view and ask “why,” instead of just assuming the worst, you are inviting true communication to occur and showing respect and consideration for another person’s right to think, feel, and act a certain way. The result: You develop understanding and a deeper relationship based on communication and civility, compassion, and empathy. If you approach them with aggression, they will feel defensive and respond with anger in return. On the other hand, if you approach the other person with respect, they are able to hear your perspective and feel safe sharing theirs.

6. Communicate skillfully.

Share your perspective by using the word "I" and talking about how you feel. But don't stop there, or you'll remain self-centered in your perspective. Ask the other person to share their perspective, and engage with it sincerely. Show interest for the other person's perspective, and explore together how you can come to a compromise. Again, be curious, not accusatory.

Are you dealing with someone passive-aggressive in your life? Here are a few ways to handle the situation:

1. Call them out.

“Did you mean for that to sound passive-aggressive?” can quickly snap someone out of it. Caught red-handed, they may rush to say, “Oh, no.” Then, if you like, you can probe further to ask them if something is upsetting them. Invite a civil conversation that takes into perspective how they are feeling.

2. Ignore them.

The other person is trying to get a point across and they are obviously being hostile, but you don’t have to take the bait: If you can let it go, you’ll be happier for it.

3. Be compassionate and forgiving.

The passive-aggressive (or aggressive) person is obviously frustrated and tense. That’s not a comfortable or happy place to be. It’s hard to carry so much anger within yourself. Wish them well, while setting good boundaries with them.

4. Invite them to share their perspective and feelings.

In so doing, you create a space for them to really share what's going on, rather than having to make indirect stabs that only make matters worse.

For more on the science of happiness, emotional intelligence, and compassionate communication, see The Happiness Track.

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