Volume 19, Number 5
July/August 2002

In the Solution

Anger and Conflict Resolution: A Way Back to Civility

By James Howard

There seems to be so much anger in the legal profession today. Although clear and forceful advocacy certainly is appropriate, it should not be accomplished through intimidation and disrespect. Issues such as abuse and injustice can and should generate anger and outrage, but projecting this anger onto an adversary is never warranted. Anger, even justifiable anger, needs to be appropriately contained, channeled, and expressed. I believe a direct connection exists between free-floating anger and the erosion of civility apparent in our profession today.

Anger is a feeling, an emotional response to what a person experiences as reality. However, perceptions of reality are influenced by a person's past experiences, particularly experiences that may be similar to a current situation. Anger, like other feelings, is neutral, neither right nor wrong. Morality and responsibility are involved, however, in how an individual expresses anger. People have a right to be angry and to express it appropriately, as long as they do not hurt themselves or violate the rights of others in the process.

Although anger is not right or wrong, much of what we generally refer to as "anger" is not useful and does not serve us well. As a matter of fact, stuffing anger and letting it build up over time can contribute to significant medical problems such as high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks-and damaged relationships.

Although anger has many sources, two scenarios seem to generate considerable amounts:

  • A person or situation seems to be preventing me from attaining what I want.
  • Unresolved, lingering anger or resentments become fueled by virtually any irritation.
    The first situation is simply about life-other people continually get in our way. One way to deal with this type of situation is to focus your energies on the task in front of you and the choices over which you do have control. The second type may require professional help to discharge in a safe way, but it will require letting go of the past.

One model for expressing anger is the following sequence of realizations:

  • This is the data (my perception of reality).
  • This is my judgment (I own it).
  • These are my feelings (may be appropriate or inappropriate).
  • This is what I want (although I may not get it).

If it is not appropriate to express your anger directly, be sure to discuss and process it with a "safe" person as soon as you can. This model can be used in your personal or professional life. For example, to a colleague who is continually late for appointments, you might say the following: "Jim, you were 15 minutes late for our appointment again. You have been late for almost every appointment we've had, so it seems to me that my time is not important to you. In the future, I'd like you to call and let me know you will be late so I can use that time for other things."

Although this model is not a cure-all, you likely will find it fits the majority of anger-provoking situations in your routine day. You may not get what you want, but at least you will have been clear about it-and civil.

If anger is a continuing problem, call the ABA's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs for a referral to a local resource, 800/238-2667, ext. 5359 or 5717, or check our website at www.abanet.org/legalservices/colap/home.html, click "Directory of Local Programs." All inquiries are strictly confidential.

James Howard is the director of the Missouri Lawyers Assistance Program in Jefferson City.

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