Cooperative Parenting Part VI: Expressing Your Anger

In the last article we explored why and how to increase our awareness of our anger, calm down when we notice it, and choose to be assertive. In this article we’ll explore how to assertively express anger and how and why to dig deeper and express what’s behind it.

First remember that anger is a normal emotion and part of being human. Anger comes from the thought “Not fair!” You don’t want to try to get rid of it completely (impossible) or learn to ignore it (unhealthy). Quite the opposite – you want to make it work for you. Anger can be motivating. If you learn that your backstabbing coworker is competing for the same promotion after hearing you talk about it, yes, you could slash their tires, or can use that anger to do your research, sharpen your resume, and blow them away in the interview. If you’re angry that public schools are being stripped of art and music, forget the angry Netflix binge. Channel that energy into advocating for keeping creative arts in the school system.

But what about when it’s not possible or appropriate to channel anger into productivity, as is often the case when co-parenting? Sometimes we need to express our anger to the other person and resolve the conflict. Most people know about “I” statements but using them incorrectly can do more harm than good. For instance, “I feel like you’re a jerk” won’t help anything. Here’s a formula to help you present all the important information and get the most out of expressing your anger: I feel angry when you (whatever they did) because the way I read that is (your interpretation). “I feel angry when you show up 30 minutes late to the exchange because the way I read that is you don’t respect my time.” It gives the important components the other person needs to fully understand you: what you feel, what was the event that made you feel that way, and (perhaps most importantly) how you interpreted the event. It can also be helpful to add at the end “and what I need from you is.” (e.g. “… and what I need from you is to text me if you’re going to be more than a few minutes late.”) You can see how including all these components will get a discussion further than simply growling, “Don’t be late again or the judge will hear about it.”

This formula works well for other emotions too, which is helpful because anger is often a cloud cover for other, more vulnerable emotions (sadness, guilt, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, hurt). How often in our younger years did we hear someone share feelings of anger about being ghosted or dumped? The anger was real but it was also covering up hurt and sadness. Once we get to these vulnerable emotions we can explore what is really going on and express those thoughts and feelings, which are likely to elicit less defensiveness and more compassion.

Understanding the emotions behind anger is important, and likewise for thoughts: we understand ourselves and others better if why know what the thinking is behind a request or desire. This concept is called Position vs. Interest. It’s explained easily by this story:

Two chefs worked for the king. There was only one orange and they both needed it. They argued: I need the orange, no I need the orange! In the end they compromised and cut it in half. One chef had half the amount of pulp needed for a glass of orange juice, the other had half the amount of zest needed for the breakfast buns. If they had talked about why they wanted the orange they would have peeled it and both chefs would have gotten 100% of what they needed.

Positions are the “what” – in this case, the orange. It’s the solution one person has decided must happen to meet their needs. It’s rigid thinking and limiting. Position-based negotiation starts with a limited number of options that are either accepted or declined.

Interests are the “why” behind our requests or demands – in this case the peel and the pulp. They help define the real problem and also provide room for additional exploration. Agreements are more easily found when we take time to explore each person’s whys: their needs, desires, concerns, and fears. Therefore, it is more helpful to lead with our interest than with our position, and likewise, it will be more helpful to learn the other person’s interest behind their position.

Here’s a real-life example: A teenage daughter tells her mother she needs a ride to the mall (position). Mom says no (position). Both stomp off, annoyed. Now imagine if they discussed interests: “Mom, I want to go to the mall because my favorite store is having a huge sale and we can get all my spring clothes for 70% off!” “Honey, that would be great, but I can’t miss this conference call I have in 10 minutes.” Notice how they still feel like they’re on the same team because they understand why the other person is operating the way they are. Now they can talk about solutions so that everybody gets their needs met, because their needs actually aren’t incompatible, only their positions. “Can you and Jane go and have her mom drive you?” “Jane’s at her dad’s. Can you bring me this afternoon?” “No, I have to visit Nana at the hospital. Is the sale online too?” “Yeah, but I like to try on clothes before buying them.” “If the sale’s still going on tomorrow I can bring you after lunch.” “Great!” Four solutions offered up organically and with a team feel in under 20 seconds! And all because people shared interests rather than digging into their positions.

So using your anger as healthy motivation, understanding the vulnerable emotions behind it, and exploring the reasoning that drives it in conflict will help you be the parent you want to be for your children.