“Why do misunderstandings make others angrier?”

This is a question that someone asked me on Quora.com.

There are two reasons why this is an important question to discuss.

On the one hand, it addresses what probably is a very common source of angry reactions…misunderstandings.

On the other hand, it clearly perpetuates an anger myth which both wrongly depicts how anger works, and shifts the responsibility for anger away from the person getting angry.

I should point out that the person who asked this question was most likely just curious about wanting an answer, innocently posted the question, and, along with most people, had no clue either about how anger works or about the existence of disempowering anger myths. So, please do not misinterpret my response as a criticism of the questioner. This is not my intent.

Anger and Misunderstandings

I have, in other posts on this blog, spoken about how anger is one of six primary emotions that have existed in “man” for eons. Four of these primary emotions, including anger, are primitive threat detectors the function of which is to alert us to perceived threats in our surroundings and subconsciously prepare our bodies to deal with the threat and insure our survival.

Your anger is a threat detecting tool.

Your anger tells you that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate by throwing enough force at it. Anger prepares you for battle.

A misunderstanding is defined by Dictionary.com as:

 To take (words, statements, etc.) in a wrong sense; understand wrongly.

When it comes to anger and misunderstandings, there are two issues:

  • What we have actually done or said
  • How the other person perceives or gives meaning to what we did or said.

It is the failure to keep these two issues separate that results in the escalation of anger when misunderstandings occur.

This is how the process works.

You do (or say) something that another person perceives as a threat to their goals, values, self-image, or “survival”.

In other words, the person interacting with, and getting angry at, you believes what you have done or said is “wrong” (for a variety of different reasons). If they do not attempt to validate the situation and their anger, as happens when anger is mastered, they “go” with their opinion and their perception, logic is suspended and the interaction deteriorates.

You, in the same self-preserving approach that they are using, see your actions as valid, view their “aggressive” stance as a threat, get angry, and escalate the interaction.

This is not to say that what you have done is objectively wrong  (as seen by an unbiased observer). Rather, it is subjectively wrong as defined by the other person.

This is an important distinction.

You may have done nothing wrong (what you did) and the other person misperceived or misinterpreted (their perception) your actions based on their own psychological state at the time, the situation or surroundings in which the actions occurred, or some other, unknown, set of circumstances.

That a “misunderstanding” occurred means, by definition, that no wrong was done. If this is never questioned, the anger intensifies on both your part and theirs.

Now to the myth.

I discuss three anger myths in my Amazon bestselling book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

One of these myths is that our anger controls us. It is a myth because it isn’t true.

When the writer on Quora asked about how (misunderstandings) MAKE (emphasis added) others angry, he implied that something outside of the other person had the power to control them and to cause (read force) them to get angry without their permission. This is the anger myth. If this were true, which is is not, the other person would be a robot and would not be responsible for anything they do when they get angry.

By the same token, the myth implies that you, if you get angry, are also a robot with no control over yourself or your emotions.

This myth is widely believed.

We see the impact of it when a celebrity or athlete beats up his girlfriend, does something really stupid, or makes a fool of himself and says, “My anger made me do it.” Another example is the spousal abuser who tells his spouse, “ If you hadn’t done (whatever), I would not have gotten angry and (hurt you).”

In both of these examples, the aggressor takes no personal responsibility for the actions taken and blames the other person for causing both the anger and the aggression.

In fact, all of us are responsible both for the anger we feel and the actions we take when angry. While it is true that the aggressor would not have done what they did if they were not angry, the anger did not force them to hurt another person (other options exist) and the aggressor could have decided to change their perception and not get angry.

By the way, I have addressed how to deal with another person who directs their anger at you in a series of three posts entitled: You are the target of someone’s anger.  Part 1 is archived in February 2017 and parts 2 and 3 are archived in March 2017.

So, the initial question has now been addressed in terms of the process underlying the connection between anger and misunderstandings and the myth that the misunderstanding makes the other person angry.

I welcome your comments.

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