Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Growing up, I sometimes would get frustrated with people who acted like idiots. My uncle used to say, “Nephew, stupidity is like grass: it’s everywhere.”
So is anger. The current U.S. president and the election season leading to the U.S. national elections in November 2020 have put anger on center stage. But make no mistake: Americans are an angry people, with or without the current president. The fuse that lights anger in the United States is a short one, as history has shown. The volatility of the current U.S. president has made being angry and explosive more fashionable. His cruelty and unpredictability fit neatly with the conditions for anger which exist throughout the U.S.: fear and sadness. Of course those conditions exist worldwide - which points to my assertion that the world is angry. Most of us acknowledge that anger is natural emotion that humans feel on occasion. Some of us are more prone to expressing anger more often. For some, anger manifests itself differently than for others. Those of us who never feel anger at any time are exceedingly rare and are likely in need of some level of therapy. There is a great deal of anger in the world. It is a largely human emotion that is seen as natural. When we speak of “angry” animals, we are really referring to animals who appear angry because they are feeling fear, such as a threat to their well-being. Many of us refer to someone as having “an anger issue”, when really they have a fear or sadness issue instead. In other words, they don’t go from fine to angry without some other emotion being involved first. A closer examination of anger reveals that anger is in fact not the first, or primary, emotion we feel, but a feeling that stems from another, preceding emotion. In other words, anger is not a primary emotion. In actuality, anger is a secondary emotion. That is, anger is a result of a primary emotion that then triggers the secondary emotion of anger. Often the primary emotions that trigger anger is sadness or fear. Anyone who understands this paradigm is then empowered to develop skills to remain calm in the face of another person’s anger. To acquire these skills, practice is required. Truth be told, all of us deal with angry people and we all inevitably come into contact with someone who appears to be angry with you. Remember, it’s like grass. Many times we avoid angry people or let angry people have their way just to disengage with their anger. While this avoidance reaction may work on occasion, the practice of avoidance reinforces the behavior of those who display anger openly and often. It is stressful for all parties and sets up the fear of angry people as though anger necessarily leads to violence. Having dealt directly with hundreds of explosively angry people, I must tell you that physical violence never happened. Why? Because violence is much more likely to occur when two people (or more) are angry at the same time. When the angry person is met with someone who does NOT get angry, everything changes. So how do you keep from getting angry in the face of someone’s anger? As a school principal for over 20 years, I dealt with hundreds of angry people of all ages, children, adolescents, and adults and never once did the interaction become violent. The fact that I am physically fit, about six feet tall, and am confident with who I am surely had something to do with angry people not getting violent with me. But that isn’t the key factor in my handling angry people. The real reason was that I knew that their anger never really had to do directly with me. I just happened to be the one they felt represented our school, so I was “the face of the school.” I was the easiest target and, as a public servant, they felt certain that I was compelled to control myself and not get angry with them in return. they could get angry with little fear of retaliation.
I also knew that their anger was the result of an emotion other than anger - a primary emotion - so I focused on seeking to understand the pain point that caused the primary emotion. Once I was able to get at that, their anger - the secondary emotion - melted away. then a real conversation could take place where a real solution could be developed. Here’s an example. One morning my secretary came into my office just after I had come in from hall duty. “There’s a mother out here who is really upset. You suspended her son for five days and she thinks it is wrong and unfair. She’s cursing in front of other parents and kids.” I had just levied the suspension on her son for fighting another student in the hallway and endangering many people. I could have suspended him for 10 days, but felt that five days would be adequate. I went into the Main Office and found a tall, agitated lady who was pacing back and forth. She smelled of cigarette smoke and looked as though she had slept little. “Good morning”, I smiled and said to her in a relaxed voice. “I’m Dr. Samore, the principal. Would you like to come into my office so we can talk? She accepted my invitation.
In my office, I asked her, “What can I do for you this morning?” The mother began by loudly declaring that the suspension days were excessive and that her son would learn nothing at home or at her workplace. She then proceeded to tell me that she knew her 14 year old son was a holy terror and she couldn’t control him either. She was telling me this in an angry, loud voice. Listening for cues to her primary emotion, I remained calm in spite of her cursing and bile. After she appeared to have gotten her anger (really sadness and frustration) out, she began to get quieter and allowed me to address her concerns. I explained to her what had happened and how her son had caused something of a small riot in our school. I also offered to get him his homework to reduce the negative academic impact. There was silence between us for a few seconds as the lady looked at me fixedly. The mother suddenly blurted out, “I think I realize why I’m so pissed off with you. You look like my ex-husband!” Our conversation quickly became more positive and productive. Since I had behaved calmly and respectfully - apparently very differently from her ex-husband whom I resembled - she understood I was nothing like the guy and was focused on what was best for her son. Once we acknowledged her primary emotions of frustration, resentment, and past hurt, her secondary emotion - anger - evaporated. She smiled and said, “I know you all are trying your best with my son. He really is a handful. I appreciate the fact that you reduced his suspension and it could have been longer.” The mother’s primary emotion had been identified and validated. As my secretary watched in disbelief, I escorted the once-angry mother out of my office, now smiling and relaxed. I have continued to use this technique repeatedly, even with wildly angry people. They have ranged from massive, abusive fathers, to verbally abusive mothers. Of course, most of my experience in working with angry people has been with children and adolescents. My reputation as a “child whisperer” and “calmer of angry seas” grew with each interaction. These “drive-by shoutings’ are common for anyone in education, especially K-12 teachers and administrators and are part of our job, unfortunately. Most people view public school educators as emotional punching bags when darker impulses prevail. To handle the inevitable, I coached my faculty on this primary/secondary emotion technique so we could separate anger and get to solutions, while building bridges and maintaining dignity. So how do you focus on the real issue and not get blinded by the anger facing you, remaining calm in the face of anger when the reaction you have practiced for years is to get angry, too? My next blog outlines a road map to staying cool: The Mad Mountain©. ©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.