Avoiding unnecessary interpersonal anger

Mental checklist to go through whenever you feel angry at someone for not doing something that you expected them to do, or for doing something that you expected them not to do. Applies regardless of whether the person in question is a co-worker, friend, relative, significant other, or anything else:

  1. Ask yourself whether you clearly communicated your expectation to them.
  2. Ask yourself whether they, after hearing about your expectation, indicated that they understood it and would try to fulfill it.
  3. If the answer to both of the previous questions is “yes”, then absent any other mitigating factors, you have the right to be angry at the other person. Otherwise you certainly have a right to feel disappointed or sad, but not angry.
  4. “But it should have been obvious!” is not a substitute for “yes” for either of the first two questions. Okay, there are some situations where it is, like if they suddenly stabbed you with a knife or burned down your house for no reason. But outside such extremes, assume that it wasn’t at all as obvious as you’re thinking it was.

If you don’t like the above being expressed in what sounds like moral terms, you may substitute expressions like “you have a right to be angry” with something like “you may express anger with the reasonable expectation that this will probably improve rather than worsen your relationship, as you are now seeking to enforce the agreement that you and the other person previously entered into and are thus working to ensure that the relationship remains healthy and pleasant for everyone involved, as opposed to just hurting the other person by randomly lashing out at them for something they never realized they should’ve avoided and thus increasing the odds that they feel a need to be on their toes around you. Also, you yourself will be better off if you don’t poison your own thoughts by feeling anger at someone who didn’t actually intend to do you any harm”. But that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as concise to express.

(And of course, if we wanted to be really exact, there’d be the issue that there can be differing degrees of certainty. E.g. someone giving a sympathetic nod when you express your desire counts as consent in many situations. But it still leaves more room for misunderstanding than a situation where they first paraphrase your desire in their own words, and then explicitly say that they’ll try to fulfill it. So ideally you ought to also calibrate your level of anger to be proportionate to the probability of an earlier miscommunication.)

I still frequently catch myself needing to remind myself about points #1 and #2 after I’ve already gotten angry at someone, but at least the act of becoming angry at someone is starting to act as an automatic triggering event for the above checklist. Hopefully I can eventually get to the point where I always go through the list first.

One comment

  1. My mental checklist:
    1. Remember that I’m stupid, lazy and ignorant. So is the other person, by virtue of being human.
    2. Why did I expect a different result? Shit happens.
    3. The problem is in my head. There is no problem in reality.
    4. If I still feel angry, so be it. I’m not perfect. see (1).

Leave a Reply