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Learning Empathy Helps To Decrease Uncontrolled Anger

by Dr. Ari Novick January 26, 2015

The headlines are full of stories about angry people taking to the streets in protest, vocalizing their disappointments via social media or tragically hurting others to make their feelings known. Angry verbal and violent events happen in homes and in the workplace across the U.S. all the time. The recent angry protests surrounding the Michael Brown case show that a large part of the population in Ferguson feel like they are misunderstood and powerless. While a certain level of anger is appropriate and common to everyone, it’s when you can’t stop yourself from taking revenge in the form of screaming, violence or looting that you need to take a look at how you are handling the stress and aggravations of daily life.

People who are successful leaders or good managers or have strong marriages all have one thing in common – they are able to put themselves in another person’s shoes to help resolve conflict. They can look past their own needs and although they may not agree with it, they can hear and understand another person’s perspective. It’s a peaceful process of discussion and negotiation to arrive at a compromise or sometimes to even “give in” and go along with the other perspective. We see examples of this when two people have been in a relationship for many years. One partner might not be naturally neat or organized, but can see why the other partner gets mad when the house is a mess. They have empathy for the other’s feelings and try to clean up to make the relationship run more smoothly.

People who grow up with caring parents will from a young age unconsciously see that their parents are kind and understanding of others. As the child grows up he or she often chooses to copy this modeling because it feels good and helps them get along with friends and at school. However, you don’t have to be born into an empathetic family to gain this skill. Even people who have grown up in broken or violent homes can learn why social awareness is important and how to increase the ability to listen and communicate empathetically with others. Essentially, empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed over time.

Taking an anger management class, working with a mentor or therapist, or reading books on the subject can help you to retrain your thinking to eliminate harsh judgment of others. In the example of Ferguson, individuals with this empathetic concern would never have looted the innocent shops in the area, instead putting themselves in the shopkeeper’s shoes to realize they had nothing to do with the ruling.

To teach empathy, research shows that people often feel more closely tied with others that are similar to them. Part of the discussion is to identify commonalities you have with another person. For example, you are both fathers, both like sports or both have stressful jobs. Take a look at a particular situation that makes you mad, and discuss how it would feel to be the other person. What could they be thinking? The more you are able to humanize the person you are angry with, the more empathetic you will become. Gaining the tool of empathy will help control your level of anger and stabilize your emotional life.

About the author

Ari Novick, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Anger Management Professional and trainer.

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