Whether it’s a romantic partner, co-worker, in-law, or just someone you are in frequent contact with who always expresses the yin to your yang, the chronically disputatious person can be annoying, to say the least. People are bound to disagree with each other from time to time, but when someone constantly argues with you, it suggests that the problem isn't with your relationship, but with that bickerer. Imagine that a friend asks you for advice on how to make fried chicken. As you reveal the secrets to your best family recipe, the friend interrupts you and suggests in know-it-all fashion that it’s better to use corn flakes than bread crumbs. If your friend is such an expert, then why ask your advice in the first place? When such antagonistic behavior isn’t just a one-time thing, new research on anger suggests, something else might be at the root of the problem but there may be ways you can deal with it.
Kansai University of Japan's Masaya Takebe and colleagues (2016) conducted a four-month, follow-up study on a sample of 75 undergraduates (2/3 female) to investigate the predictive relationship of anger rumination, or the tendency to mull over angry feelings, on levels of anger as a personality trait and “anger-in,” or the tendency to suppress one’s angry feelings. Theoretically, personality traits are viewed as stable and unchanging, so the interesting feature of this study was its approach of seeing whether the cognitive state of anger rumination could affect the level of anger as a personality disposition. The theory behind the study was that people who ruminate over the things that make them angry would become even higher in trait anger over time, and at the same time, they would need to work harder to push those feelings away.
The Japanese study was correlational, and therefore it’s not possible to draw cause-and-effect conclusions. However, the fact that measures given at Time 1 were used to predict scores at Time 2 reduces some of that concern. The scale of anger rumination included questions such as “Whenever I experience anger, I keep thinking about it for a while.” Trait anger included questions assessing more enduring features of personality, such as “I have a fiery temper.” Anger-in, or the tendency to suppress angry feelings, was tapped with items such as “I am angrier than I am willing to admit.”
Consistent with the study’s expectations, people higher in anger rumination became angrier over time in trait anger scores. Anger rumination didn’t predict changes in anger-in, but changes in this tendency to suppress angry feelings over time were related to changes in trait anger. The authors concluded that leaving an encounter in which you feel angry does bring out higher levels of trait anger, necessitating that you use more anger suppression.
An additional finding seems particularly relevant to the ways that we handle disputatious people. When anger rumination scores were used to divide people into low- and high-anger rumination groups, it appeared that those in the high rumination group were likely to perceive more situations as frustrating. If we’re to help such people (or ourselves, if need be) reduce the tendency to ruminate over angry feelings, we need to change the tendency to perceive situations as anger-producing.
It may be a tall order to stop anger at the source without therapeutic intervention. Indeed, anger management programs, such as those using cognitive principles or mindfulness, can prove helpful in reducing anger rumination. Short of providing such therapy, though, there may be ways to make life a little easier when the person you’re dealing with seems conflict-prone. These five tips take advantage of the Takebe et al. study to provide some concrete strategies.
- Get the feelings out into the open.
Rumination only makes things worse. The Takebe et al. study showed that when people are in rumination mode, they mull over what or who made them angry, which only serves to exacerbate their anger which they, in turn, have to try harder to hold in. See if you can talk, without shouting or recrimination, to help them work through their anger and see things in a more positive light.
- Don’t take it personally.
People who are constantly angry are, just that, constantly angry. It could be you, it could be a traffic light slow to change to green, or a salesperson whom they feel is treating them rudely (if they’re always angry, that’s a real possibility). The main point is for you to understand that it’s not you, it’s them, and as such, you don’t have to become angry in turn.
- Find a neutral way to talk to the person.
If it’s too difficult to do this in a face-to-face manner, consider composing your thoughts in an email where you can think about what you want to say ahead of time. You can also suggest a time to talk so that you both have an opportunity to prepare while your cooler heads prevail.
- Don’t get caught up in arguments you don’t want to have.
The disputatious don’t just make things up out of thin air- they will find something to pick out of what you’ve actually done or said and use this against you in a hostile and aggressive way. It would be easy to react defensively or angrily yourself. Remind yourself that this is someone who argues for the sake of argument, and just let those attacks go.
- Help give the person some ideas for finding other forms of anger expression.
Since anger rumination causes anger to build up, individuals whose anger switch is always "on" need to find some way to release their frustrations. In terms of defense mechanisms, there can be times when a little displacement or sublimation of that anger can be a good thing. Suggest that the individual go to, or join, a gym that is supplied with balls that can be slammed into the floor, the harder the better. Such an outlet is preferable to the proverbial “kicking the cat” or smashing one’s fist into a wall.
To sum up, it’s no fun dealing with the disputatious. However, by understanding how rumination feeds into their anger, it may be possible to turn some of that unpleasantness into more fulfilling, and peaceful, interactions.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016
Takebe, M., Takahashi, F., & Sato, H. (2016). Anger rumination as a risk factor for trait anger and anger-in: A longitudinal study. Personality and Individual Differences, 101451-455. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.06.038