Dear Still Filled with Anger

Dear Ms. Scholar, I’ve been in a very conflict-filled situation in my department. The particular problem has been at least partially resolved, but I am still filled with a lot of anger. Unfortunately, some of that anger is being misdirected at inappropriate situations and people. Any suggestions?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Still Filled with a Lot of Anger, This is a wise question. You will be working with many of your colleagues over a long period of time, and to do the things you’d like and meet your personal and professional goals, you’ll need to maintain and build bridges, even with some of these difficult people in your life.

One of the difficulties of living through (enduring?) extended conflict is the tendency to retreat too easily into an unthinking defensive position. There it’s easy to attack when it’s inappropriate or to treat even friendly overtures as problems. Unfortunately, these “reasonable” responses may prolong the conflict.

About a very different context, Eldridge Cleaver said, “You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” Ms. Scholar agrees. We can wait until the offending party rehabilitates – which may or may not happen – or we can instead make change from our end, recognizing that our behavior affects theirs and vice versa.

What are you doing to change your world? We want our students to be good observers, to recognize strengths and weaknesses, to consider problems from all angles. If we want our students to do these things, if we value them, we should engage in and model these skills.

It’s easy to perceive ourselves as all good and the other party as all bad. What is the evidence? Ms. Scholar finds it helpful to think about herself and the other party as like rivers, constantly changing. At some points the other party is certainly doing things that cause problems, but perhaps that party is also doing good things. She may pay special attention to the good (it’s easy to pay attention to the bad). Sometimes she notices the small ways that she is contributing to the conflict – being snippy, avoiding making eye contact, viewing the other party’s behavior in the worst possible way – and commits to doing things differently.

Tan (2012) uses a mindfulness perspective to promote professional development at Google. He suggests challenging this dichotomy (me good/you bad) by tagging a series of statements about the other person with the phrase, just like me.

This person has a body and a mind, just like me.
This person has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me.
This person has, at some point in his or her life, been sad, disappointed, angry, hurt, or confused, just like me….
This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me….
This person wishes to be happy, just like me. (pp. 169-170)

The Just Like Me meditation begins to break down the false dichotomy that interferes with the kind of compassion we need for effective work relationships.

Ms. Scholar also wants our students to approach their learning from a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). When students say that they cannot do math or write or whatever, she reframes their statement: “You can’t do it as well as you would like – yet!” Try the same with yourself. Right now you have difficulty sitting in the same room with the other party, but what can you do to learn how to handle this situation more effectively? Remember: people can change. We can change.

Recognizing that the other party is like you can be helpful, as is believing that person may change. Tan (2012) puts these attitudes into action before entering a meeting by making the following three assumptions about the other people in the meeting:

1. Assume that everyone is present to serve the greater good.
2. Assume that no one has a hidden agenda.
3. Assume that we are all reasonable even when we disagree.

Tan (2012) does not suggest that everyone is operating to serve the greater good (he tags each of these assumptions with the phrase, unless proven otherwise); nonetheless, entertaining these three assumptions might get us to slow down our automatic reactions enough that we can consider what the data suggests rather than jumping to conclusions. Does the other party have a hidden agenda? Is that party unreasonable? In what ways is that party serving the greater good? These questions might help you see the situation more clearly.

The approaches described above are advanced skills. To use them effectively, remember to take care of yourself: sleep regularly, eat well, exercise. See the people you love, do the things that you are passionate about, engage in whatever spiritual practices nourish you. When you are feeling centered in your own life, it’s easier to be compassionate toward others so you can resolve the problems you are facing.

And, sometimes we can only work toward giving or asking for forgiveness – both of which are for ourselves as much as for others.  That forgiveness may take time. – Ms. Scholar

References

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Tan, C-M. (2012). Search inside yourself: The unexpected path to achieving success, happiness (and world peace). New York, NY: HarperCollins.


If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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