Regardless of how civil or amicable you want your divorce to be, disagreements are inevitable. Knowing how to calm anger in divorce could be your key to resolving these disagreements and staying out of the courtroom.
When you’re negotiating over the division of assets and how to parent together, and the hurt and pain are fresh and raw, it’s hard to approach this simply as a business negotiation. It’s easy to let all the past history bubble up into angry outbursts.
Those angry exchanges can continue long after the divorce is final when you’re parenting together.
Are there things you can do to calm your SBTX’s anger?
If you’re uncomfortable around anger, is it possible to stop yourself from walking away, withdrawing?
What if it’s you who’s angry? Is it healthy to get angry? How can you stop yourself from directing your anger at other people?
Joining me to explore this Conversation is attorney, mediator and peacemaker Douglas Noll. Noll coaches people as diverse as Fortune 500 company executives and inmates in maximum security prisons. He is the author of De-Escalate: How To Calm An Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less. Listen in below or keep reading ….
It’s Not As Difficult As You Think
Based on what I have observed and experienced, when you’re the target of someone’s anger, it’s not easy to calm them down. What is easy is for yourself to feel triggered, to become defensive and from there, the discussion becomes a fight and goes nowhere. In fact, the fight can easily make matters worse.
Noll says, with his technique, it doesn’t have to be this way. He says it’s not difficult to calm the other person down if you are the target.
“It is extremely easy to do so if you are willing to do exactly the steps you have to do to deescalate and if you are willing to suspend everything you think you know about communication,” said Noll.
Noll further asserts that his approach is easy for anyone to learn: you do not need to shut yourself away to meditate for 30 years and become incredibly self-aware.
“You have to be willing to listen,” said Noll. “And you have to suspend your own anxiety around social conventions.”
Know When To Walk Away
Just because it is easy to calm an angry person, doesn’t mean you should always try.
“The rule is if there is incipient violence, walk away,” said Noll. “You do whatever you have to do to make sure you’re safe.”
If you’re safe, then you have to ask yourself if you want to deescalate the person and then do you have the emotional capacity at that moment in time to do so. If the answer to all three of these is yes then Noll says you ready to proceed with deescalating the problem.
A common misstep even for trained mediators, is to start problem-solving when faced with someone who’s emotional and Noll believes this is completely the wrong action to take.
“We’ve all learned to do this because it soothes our own anxiety,” said Noll. “You cannot solve any kind of emotional problem with logical reasoning or rationality. You have to confront the problem on the emotional level.”
Let The Emotions Flow
We’ve all heard that the legal divorce process is not going to compensate for wrong-doings of a marriage and that settlement discussions need to be approached as a business negotiation. That often gets interpreted to mean that there’s no place for the emotions. Noll vehemently disagrees with this.
“The beauty of mediation is that you can deal with the anger, you can deal with the upset, you can deal with the pain,” said Noll. “That doesn’t mean people are going to reconcile.”
Noll contends that by ignoring the emotions, the negotiations become more difficult. “If we don’t pay attention to the emotions, we are not paying attention to the human being and no amount of negotiation, no amount of trying to be reasonable is going to work.”
Ignore The Words
Let’s say you and your STBX are having a very heated debate about spousal support. They say they’re not going to pay a penny because you don’t deserve it. It’s very tempting to respond to that with all the ways you’ve contributed to the marriage and why you aren’t earning as much as your STBX.
Noll’s technique is actually to ignore the words that are being spoken. It’s counter-intuitive because we’ve been taught that to listen to someone, it means absorbing the words. However, when you ignore the words the first thing that happens is that you are far less likely to be triggered by what is being said.
When you are listening to the words and processing them, you become reactive: you’re already trying to construct a counter-argument. That means you’re actually not fully listening.
“That’s what makes this process so simple and yet so hard,” said Noll. “Every single step of the process is absolutely counter-intuitive to everything we have ever learned about communication.”
Read The Emotions
If you’re not paying attention to the words, what are you doing?
Noll explains that we have emotions that we are experiencing in every moment of consciousness. Those emotions shift in intensity, quality and duration. We project these emotions like a radar transmitting a beam and they are being transmitted by everything we do: by our eyes, tonality, body posture.
If you’ve ever sensed that your partner or child is angry or upset the moment they arrive home and before they’ve said a word, you’ve experienced this.
Our brain is processing these beams and determining one thing: are we safe?
If you’re brain, thinks you’re safe then you feel comfortable approaching the other person. If your brain thinks the other person is dangerous, then you don’t feel safe and you move into defensive mode.
“The fundamental unconscious judgement is always a question of safety or danger,” said Noll. “Obviously, when you see anger or upset or anxiety, it’s almost always indicating a lack of safety. That person is perceiving danger.”
Learning to read these emotions is not difficult. Noll says it’s what we are hard wired to do but it we do have to practice it.
What does make this hard is that as a society we have placed an emphasis on rational thought over emotions and Noll has traced this back to the early Greek philosopher Plato. Emotions have been seen as dangerous, as something we need to learn to control, something that makes us more like animals. Noll, whose work is based in science, believes this approach to be fundamentally wrong and harmful to us.
Noll says the key is to recognize that emotions come in layers. He’s identified six layers:
- Dignitary emotions, such as not being listened to, not being heard, being treated unfairly, being disrespected
- Fear and anxiety
- Guilty, shame, humiliation and embarassment
- Sadness and grief
- Fear of abandonment and being unloved
Reflect The Emotions
Once you’ve detected the emotions, the next step is to reflect them back to the person.
Since you’re ignoring the words, you’re letting the unconscious part of your brain figure out the emotions.
“If you sit in silence for a moment, ideas will start to bubble up,” said Noll. “All you do is figure out what matches what you’re seeing and it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or wrong.”
The reason why it doesn’t matter if the emotion you name is wrong, is because the other person will correct you. And that’s the beauty of Noll’s approach.
“That’s the other thing that’s really counter-intuitive. You can be dead wrong on your guess and it’s still going to work,” said Noll.
Forget “I” Statements
Perhaps you’ve learned the technique of using “I” statements such as, “I’m sensing that you are angry.” Noll says that doesn’t help to calm an angry person. What he advocates is a very direct and simple statement:
You’re really angry. You’re pissed off. You’re really frustrated. You don’t feel like you’re being listened to. You feel completely unsupported. You’re feeling a lot of sadness and grief.
“The reason people use “I” statements is because it’s self soothing,” said Noll. “But the moment you start using an “I” statement, you’re no longer listening. You’re talking about yourself and you’re on your own agenda.”
The only time to use an “I” statement is when you are asserting your own truth.
Watch For A Response
Once you’ve reflected back the emotions you’ve detected, watch for an involuntary, unconscious response. The primary response you’re looking for is a nod of the head, a movement up and down, that would confirm the emotions you’ve named.
Next, you’re looking for some kind of verbal explanation such as, “You’re dam right that’s what I’m feeling.” You could also get a response denying the emotion you’ve named. The person’s either going to tell you exactly what they are feeling or you have the opportunity to offer another emotion.
Then what usually follows is a dropping of the shoulders and a deep sigh both of which are signs that the tension has been released. In intense emotional situations, there’ll also be tears.
Saying Calm Down Doesn’t Work
How often have you said or been told, “Calm down!” Has it ever worked? I’ve rarely seen it work and more often, it only makes the situation worse.
Noll explains that this is “emotional invalidation” which he regards as a form of abuse. The response is rooted again in the value our society has placed on being rational and regarding emotions as dangerous or valueless. We learn to invalidate the emotions of others because it is self-soothing.
“When you see somebody who’s emotionally upset, you start to feel anxious,” said Noll. “Until you become more emotionally intelligent you will feel anxiety. Anxiety is one thing human beings cannot tolerate. Human beings will do anything to get out of anxiety.”
So when you feel yourself about to say “Calm down!” move instead to the first step of Noll’s process: ignore the words that are being spoken and feel the emotions.
It Takes Practice
While we might all have an innate ability to recognize the emotions of others, it is going to take practice to develop the skills. As with any new skill, the more you practice, the more skilled you’ll become. So when you’re having your own emotional experience, you’ll be able to immediately “affect-label” your own experience.
“When you do that, you’re automatically building your own emotional intelligence,” said Noll. “Practice listening to others and you will grow yourself.”
My guest for this Conversation was attorney, mediator and peacemaker Douglas Noll. Doug coaches people as diverse as Fortune 500 company executives and inmates in maximum security prisons. He is the author of De-Escalate: How To Calm An Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less.