In March 2007 The Swiss army marched into Liechtenstein apparently accidentally which, if it weren’t Switzerland a country notable for its lack of aggression, might have caused a dramatic diplomatic incident. As it turned out the Liechtenstein response remarkable, they didn’t notice. In fact the Swiss had to own up to their mistake and were met with what can only be described as disinterested nonchalance, which is just as well really because, with a population of less than the crowd which might be expected at a moderately high level sporting event, Liechtenstein don’t even have an army.
Unlike Liechtenstein, our response to what might be perceived as aggression has a tendency to make matters worse. We seem adept at fanning the flames of an argument sufficiently to turn a drama into a crisis. Why do we do this and, more importantly, how can we stop it?
For many people anger is seen as a wholly negative emotion. This is understandable when you consider that we will often have learnt about it from the ham-fisted way we have seen it dealt with growing up.
My own experience of argument at home played out in a familiar and depressing pattern. My mother would be frustrated about something my father had done or not done, she would make her displeasure known, probably in a way which wasn’t terribly constructive, my father would take offence and respond with anger which would then cue raised voices culminating in one or both protagonists slamming doors in childish retreat. Often my father would go to sit in his car. There would never be reconciliation but rather a gradually emerging fragile peace, until the next time.
Arguments with my siblings or my parents tended to follow similar patterns so we were treated to all the energy and propulsion of the anger but never schooled in the hugely beneficial strategies for using that energy productively. Conflict and argument was never positioned as an effective way of airing and dealing with genuine difference.
Over the years the arguments between my parents became a blur and I rarely remembered or even knew what any of them were about. Instead I developed a foundational certainty that my mum and dad didn’t get on very well and that arguments were bad because there was no way of ending them well or avoiding their destructive explosion however meagre their beginnings.
When I grew up I, unsurprisingly, had my own issues with conflict. The suggestion that it might be useful if dealt with correctly or that it might be dismantled by a refusal to accept unjustified accusations or assumptions thrown in my direction rather than catching them and throwing them back with interest simply didn’t occur to me. So for years there was a gap in my knowledge about employing effective ways of maintaining healthy relationships.
We play out a number of familiar scenes when locked into an argument but few of them propel us somewhere better often because, when we fight with someone who is really important to us, we focus on how we are feeling attacked and bruised rather than how the other person must be feeling in order to want to attack in the first place.
In an argument where the criticism is fundamentally justified albeit communicated in a painful way we might instinctively defend rather than accept responsibility. Being attacked makes us feel small and bad and when we have let someone down we want to rid ourselves of that feeling. Fighting back seems like the best option, to find some semblance of strength and reject the notion that we have faltered but it’s unnecessary. People who care about don’t attack us because they dislike us, they do so because they are hurt and when we are hurt the last thing we want is for the hurt to be denied. Better to accept our failings and apologise because apology validates the hurt we have caused and, whilst it may not make everything better it is a definite step in the right direction. Why don’t we employ this strategy more often? Its because it requires strength that can be elusive when we are on the back foot.
Anger always has another emotion at its foundation, hurt or fear, maybe frustration or desperation. Anger looks strong because it is loud and powerful but it so often hides vulnerability. In the moment of explosion if we are able to see the emotion below the anger our ability to respond in a way which is constructive and appropriate increases ten fold. But it takes strength and courage to set aside our own feeling of hurt when we are attacked and find instead the message underneath and use that to move towards someone we care for rather than away from them with our own aggression. To defuse anger requires a certainty of our own value and worth and to recognise whats going on underneath in the person who is angry with us. e that because of this we have the power to hurt them.
But what about the times when we are unfairly criticised, when what we hear from someone else is a mixture of assumption and unreasonable accusation? What then? It can be in these situations that we dig deep for our most venomous response, attacked without justification and with an urgency to set the record straight and ensure we are seen as we want to be. Usually it ends badly and both parties end up saying things they wish later they hadn’t as the argument veers wildly from its root to somewhere else entirely and we’re both left in a crumpled heap wondering what the hell happened.
Part of the problem is a perception of weakness. We see a lack of response when someone is up close and shouting obscenities into our face as some sort of tacit admission or culpability, a display of cowardice, a response which reluctantly accepts being treated like a louse because we lack the backbone to fight back, however ridiculous and unfounded the basis of the fight might be. But really the opposite is true, to be still and silent when we are unjustly treated is sometimes the ultimate show of strength.
It takes two people to have an argument and if its genesis is a series of unfair remarks emanating from someone who is hurting or frustrated then joining in does nothing more than validate the fight. To be silent when unjustly accused is the same as holding a mirror up to the accuser. It is an invitation for the other to reflect on what they are saying, how they are behaving and to realise it is their own “stuff” that needs dealing with. To join a fight begun on the basis of unreasonableness serves simply to give it reason and soon the initial imbalance gives way to a tit for tat battle which takes on a life all of its own. To be silent is to refuse the suggestions made, to not dignify it with response, to offer the opportunity for not only a different route but a look at what really lies beneath the anger and perhaps an admission of such leading to a more purposeful and fulfilling way of dealing with it calmly and together even if there needs to be space and time before that can happen.
In relationships that are breaking down many hurtful and scurrilous things are said but the big mistake is to respond with similarly damaging and scarring retort. Better to stay silent and find a smoother way to separation or to understand the message of hurt that lies beneath and respond directly to that if reconciliation is desired. Arguments are only bad when they are misunderstood or fuelled without purpose because at their root they say something more fundamental, they remind you that you care.
When the Swiss stumbled over the border an explosive response from Liechtenstein would have been unwise and impossible due to an ignorance of the transgression and the absence of an army. In our own lives a little less assumption of aggressive intent and a more consistent laying down of arms might well give a space in which to ponder whats really going on and, in the end, a more worthwhile kind of conflict leading to a sustained period of productive peace.