Responding to Anger in Dialogue

Thoughts from Assistant Dean Heather Caruso
Assistant Dean Heather Caruso

Heather M. Caruso, Ph.D., is UCLA Anderson’s assistant dean of  equity, diversity and inclusion and is an adjunct assistant professor in Anderson’s Management and Organizations and Behavioral Decision Making areas.

Responding to Anger in Dialogue

Because I’m passionate about equity, I often have intense conversations about it. Now we are all being called to address our nation’s tremendous racial inequities, which have been pushed to the forefront by recent events — most notably, police killings and COVID-19. We are all finding ourselves in some intense conversations.

Many of us may be uncomfortable encountering anger in the dialogue. It is easy to feel attacked and/or intimidated, or unjustly seen as an offender. We may be stunned into silence, frustrated into exiting the conversation or even provoked into returning the anger. How can we respond more constructively?

Consider the speaker’s motives

For some, anger can help shine a spotlight on issues of vital importance. This is rarely true for me. I find that anger often clouds my thinking and hinders my communication. It narrows my focus and causes me to oversimplify important issues, which is just too costly when we’re talking about racism. However, because others may be more skilled at channeling anger, I try to keep that in mind before responding. Maybe the speaker seeks to ignite an apathetic discussion or to better convey the emotional depths of their experiences. If I know more about why anger feels right to the speaker, I can respond constructively while sticking to emotional territory that is more comfortable for me. For example, I might be able to join them in energizing the discussion by responding to questions and inviting others to contribute.

Consider whether the speaker has sufficient bandwidth to express other emotions

I don’t often express anger in conversations, but that does not mean that I don’t feel anger. I do. However, because I can’t appropriately use that anger in many circumstances, I try to focus on emotions that suit me better and — here’s the vital point — I get to succeed. I have several privileges that allow me to reflect and be deliberate about which emotions I display. For example, I receive substantial encouragement, appreciation and opportunity to grow in my personal relationships, at work, and in my community. Relative to many other people with marginalized identities, I have less cause to worry about feeling belittled, stereotyped, excluded or oppressed. These circumstances give me some bandwidth to choose how to emotionally engage with what we’re dealing with now. That isn’t a privilege that everyone enjoys.

When I encounter anger in others, I consider the following questions: Does it seem like they have sufficient bandwidth to bring other emotions to the foreground? Have they felt belittled, ignored, or misunderstood for so long that pent-up anger must erupt? If so, I can help by focusing attention on those frustrations underlying the anger, so as to help bring stress levels down. This can help us to fully understand the experiences driving the emotions, and to reflect together on those issues. A simple way to try this is to ask people about the experiences that first caused them to feel angry, so that I can understand the issues that have been wearing on them, and for how long.

Consider the impacts of anger on others, not just on yourself

Let's say I see a peaceful but bluntly angry denunciation of systemic racism on a workplace email listserv. My own reaction will tend to be the first thing on my mind, but I’m probably not the only person in the audience. What effects might this anger be having on others? Are any other readers indicating that this anger was effective (e.g., a wake-up call) at getting their attention? If so, my guess is that their appreciation will be a welcome response to the original poster, so I can support their mutually fulfilling dialogue. I can even give it time to build — perhaps into a mutually appreciative partnership for reform. This can be as simple as letting people know that I see the wake-up call as an effective call to action and that I am interested in seeing how continued discussion leads to next steps.

And what do I do if I find myself or others feeling turned off or shouted down by the expressions of anger? My focus is on supporting constructive engagement from all audiences, so my instinct is to provide additional onramps to the necessary conversations. Rather than featuring anger, these onramps might use other means, such as inquiry, storytelling, or humility, to introduce complex issues. Note that these could complement discussions in which expressed anger is appropriate, valued and effective. If speakers wish to expand a conversation beyond the expression of anger, I always try to encourage that. This may lead a wider, more diverse audience to engage. However, if alternative approaches could potentially detract from a positive expression of anger, I would create a sister space — a new listserv or Slack channel, for example — for these other ways of discussing the issues. If my assumption is correct, then a new space should have no trouble attracting engagement.

Concluding thoughts

As I acknowledged earlier, anger clouds my thinking. As a result, I have trouble following my own advice when I myself am feeling angry. However, as with many things, practice makes better. This practice will probably be much easier if you apply it to situations in which you encounter anger from people you generally get along with, as you’ll need some patience. If you practice enough, it may become enough of a habit that it will come naturally even when you’re seeing anger in more distant acquaintances. Regardless, it is practicing as much as we can that matters now. We all know that the calls for difficult conversations won’t stop.

Heather M. Caruso, Ph.D.
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Management & Organizations and Behavioral Decision Making
Assistant Dean, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

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