One of the worst things you can do in dealing with conflict is act or react in anger. Anger is a common and natural emotion during conflicts, but it is also the most dangerous. In anger we punch people, in anger we call our spouses hurtful names, in anger we say and do things just so that we can inflict hurt on others.
A classic illustration about anger shows why acting or reacting in anger is so destructive. There was a boy who had anger management issues. When he would get mad he would either hit, or say awful things to those who made him angry. He told his mother that he just had to do something when he got mad. So she told him that when he felt this way to take a hammer and a nail, go to the backyard and drive that nail into a wooden fence post. After a few months of this he went and told his mom that the fence post was so covered in nails that there was no more room to drive any nails. She told him that from now on when he felt so angry he had to do something he was to take his hammer, go and take the nail out of the post. A few more months went by and he had all the nails out, and as you can imagine the post was full of holes it was ruined. His mother took him out to the post and told him, “You see son, the nails you drove in your anger are gone, but the effects remain.”
Things said or done in anger can never be unsaid or undone. If, in my anger, I say or do something hateful to my wife, she will forgive me. But the damage of what I’ve said or done will remain. The Bible has a lot to say about the need to not act or react in anger.
“Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs.” Proverbs 19:11 (NLT)
“A fool is quick-tempered, but a wise person stays calm when insulted.” Proverbs 12:16 (NLT)
I had a boss once that would go into a berserker rage at the slightest provocation. It didn’t take long for us to lose most of our respect for him. Contrast that with my former pastor and mentor Tommy Honeycutt who I’ve seen restrain his anger despite what people were saying or doing to him. I have far more respect for Tommy who controlled his temper than I did for my berserker boss. Staying calm when insulted may not be easy, but our ability to be able to do it or not do it says a lot about whether we are foolish or wise.
So what should we do rather than act or react in anger?
“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” James 1:19-20 (NLT)
This passage has a lot to say about anger and how to keep from letting it control us. When I took speech class in college the instructor told us that by the time most people reach college they have had many—I can’t remember how many—hours of training to speak. But we have had very little, if any, training in how to listen. He went on to say that a major part of real communication is active listening.
The expression be quick to listen is a great way of capturing the idea of active listening. Active listening doesn’t simply mean to not talk. It means we are ready and willing to genuinely listen to what the other person is saying. Quick to listen and slow to speak should be taken together as sides of the same coin. I heard someone say once that since God gave us two ears and one mouth we should listen twice as much as we talk. We cannot resolve a conflict if we insist on being the only one to talk and never listen to what the other person has to say.
“People with understanding control their anger; a hot temper shows great foolishness.” Proverbs 14:29 (NLT)
Connect this with what James says that our anger does not produce the righteousness of God. Part of what this means for conflict resolution is that our anger can never make things right. Nothing you do in anger will make the situation better. Nothing you say when you are mad will make it better. All your anger will do is make the situation worse. Take a minute here and think of some times when you acted or reacted in anger. It could be with your spouse, kids, coworkers, neighbors, just anyone. Now, did those actions or reactions make things better or worse?
Most of the time actions and reactions taken in anger make things worse not better. If our goal is to keep the conflict going then by all means keep on acting and reacting in your anger. If you want to keep the conflict going then refuse to listen and even when you aren’t talking be thinking over what you want to say. Never pay attention to the view point of another.
If however, your goal is to resolve conflict then you need to listen, really listen to what the other person has to say. If you want to resolve the conflict take the time to think before you speak. If you want to resolve conflict refuse to act or react in your anger.