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Using Requests to Constructively Deal with Anger
By Claudia Boers
"How dare they?" "She just doesn’t care." "He’s so selfish." "It’s so obvious, why would they do it like that?" "It’s so unfair!" "He’s done it all wrong again, is he stupid?" "She’s going to pay for this." "Why do I have to do everything if I want it done properly?" "I wish people would pay attention!" "She’s just lazy!"
Welcome to the mood of Resentment. Does any of this frustration, anger, harsh negative judgement and criticism (in contrast to critique) feel familiar to you? If so, you’re not alone. Resentment, which is what I call this cluster of emotions, is a mood many of us get trapped in. It’s one of the most difficult moods to overcome because we get hooked by its satisfying energy and enticing sense of superiority. We suffer in this mood because being stuck in Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for your enemy to die - the person who actually suffers the most is the person who’s seething. So how do we productively navigate our way out of Resentment? Read on to learn how the simple act of making an effective request can free us from this toxic mood.
Resentment focuses on the past at the cost of the future
In Resentment, we become fixated on what’s already happened. The problem with this is that what’s done is done and it’s not going to change. This might be something that’s happened or the way someone’s behaved, but it’s past tense. There might be an element of anticipation that a certain behaviour or issue will continue, but Resentment itself is about historical facts. One of my clients, Susan, used to get frustrated by what she considered to be the lack of initiative and job dedication shown by a younger member of her team. "She’s so lazy and doesn’t seem to care. When I was in her position I worked my socks off. Nothing was too much - I’d stay late and go above and beyond to show how invested I was in the company. Storme never does anything she doesn’t have to, and yet she’s disappointed at the average performance rating I’ve given her. This generation is unbelievable!" As you can see from this example, in Resentment we end up looking back and feeling wrong done by and indignant, or just plain furious, and this is where we get stuck. It’s not a nice place to be.
Resentment’s not all bad
Resentment has a bad reputation. It’s never been particularly fashionable, but these days so many people (myself included) are focused on the benefits of acceptance and the value of "letting go", that we risk missing out on the value that Resentment offers. Believe it or not, Resentment can be helpful. As with every mood, there’s data in what we’re feeling, but unless we become skilled at mining this information, we can get distracted by the heat of the moment. Resentment is generally signalling that something that’s important to us (a standard or value) has been violated. By learning to tune in to what this is, we open up the possibility of taking care of it, or really, taking care of ourselves. In the case of my client, Susan, and her young team member, Storme, we established that it was Susan’s values of diligence and hard work that were most challenged. As a team leader, Susan believed these standards were also an important part of the company culture and needed to be respected by all members of the team in order for them to get on within the company.
Resentment opens the chance for us to explicitly share our standards
By working out what exactly it is that we care about i.e., what’s at stake for us or what matters for us in the situation, we open up the possibility of dealing with the issue constructively. Essentially, we can’t change what we’re not aware of so strategic action starts with awareness. Dropping a little deeper into our Resentment and getting clear on exactly what’s behind or underpins our anger allows us to get clear on our standards and is the first step in overcoming our Resentment.
It’s not obvious to everyone
Here’s the key: so often we think something’s obvious - this is how it should be done, this is the right way, that’s how it is - when really, that’s just how we see things. It’s our perspective. We forget that not everyone shares our view. In fact, it’s more likely people don’t see it the way we do because we all have such vastly different socio-cultural backgrounds and life experiences shaping our view of the world. The problem is that we constantly forget this and fall into the trap of assuming everyone sees things the way we do. Then when others don’t meet our standards, we’re surprised and get frustrated.
Incidentally, whose standards are right?
The answer is nobody’s because none of us has ‘"the truth". We’ve all just learnt to see the world in our particular way. Think of Susan and Storme. Susan, who incidentally, comes from a family culture where application and hard work are prized, actually felt offended by what she perceived to be Storme’s lack of drive and commitment. We might imagine that Storme, on the other hand, comes from a background where kindness and gentleness are prized above all else. She might believe that Susan is critical, uncollaborative and impossible to please. Can you see how we simply have two sets of different standards, and neither is more "right" or "more truthful" than the other? They are both just the ways that Susan and Storme have learnt to be in the world.
This doesn’t mean we can’t set standards
This point is important, especially in a working environment. The crucial thing is that we need to be explicit about our standards, otherwise people won’t know what they are. When I asked Susan if she’d explicitly shared her standards (and those of the company) with Storme, she realized that she hadn’t. She’d just assumed they were obvious. Incidentally, I’m not referring to vague standards such as "work harder" or "be more enthusiastic". In order for us to share our standards effectively, we need to be specific.
Requests: both humble and powerful
So how do we share our standards specifically with others? Enter the humble and powerful act of making a request. Requests are a brilliant way to take care of what matters to us. They enable us to clearly express what our standards are without blame or judgement.
Requests allow us to hold ourselves and the things we care about as legitimate, but they also hold others as legitimate. A request respects someone’s right to accept or decline what we’re asking of them, fostering a mood of mutual respect.
Requests are also future focused and strategic. Rather than pointing fingers at what’s gone wrong in the past, a request directs us into the future, cleanly and dynamically. It’s a deceptively powerful action because it’s so straightforward and simple. And one important consideration in making requests is that we not do so from Resentment, but more from Acceptance and collaborative Ambition. This is because, while it can be useful to pay attention to Resentment in order to understand what it’s telling us, acting from this mood is generally counter-productive. If we act from Resentment, we can easily sabotage the very outcome that would give us the best chance of taking care of ourselves.
After Susan defined her standards she wanted Storme to meet, she converted them into requests. Here are some examples:
By clearly expressing what her standards were by asking for what she needed from Storme, Susan opened up the possibility for Storme to meet these standards.
So now we know
Once we’ve made a request, we hopefully get what we ask for, but if not, we now have new data. Based on this, we can decide what to do. Do we want to change something related to the issue, get rid of something, make another request, or even change our standards? By approaching things in this strategic way, we can free ourselves from resentment and take the most effective course of action. As a result, we avoid getting stuck in Resentment and wasting hours of our precious time stewing or worse, jeopardising relationships and damaging our reputation by expressing our frustration unproductively. In Susan’s case, it enabled her to neutrally share with Storme what she expected of her. Two things happened as a result of this:
Components of an effective request
Before I wrap up, I think it’s worth considering the technical elements that make a request effective. They are as follows:
Remember that we cannot control the answers to our requests. All we can do is make a request and accept that the rest is out of our hands. Hopefully we get what we want, but if we don’t, we know that we have been true to our standards, let people know what matters to us, and brought about a new set of events. We’ve created a space for choice and strategic action.
Food for thought
Claudia is a life and leadership coach who helps people learn how to become their own best resource. If you'd like to have a conversation and find out more about developing new perspectives, please check out her website: www.claudiaboerscoaching.com, or get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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