Are My Angry Outbursts Killing My Relationships?

Photo: Mohamed Hassan

Ambrose Bierce was a man who did not suffer fools gladly. In The Devil’s Dictionary, he skewered humanity, the world— and anything else within his reach. In defining a cynic as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they should be”, he was surely describing himself.

Bierce spoke the truth in a way that was both cynical (see above) and entertaining. He hit the bulls-eye when he said:

“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

This article answers four questions:

  1. What angry statements will destroy a conversation?
  2. Why is starting off angry so bad?
  3. How can I avoid being angry over something trivial?
  4. How can asking a question work better?

There’s just one problem. Being angry is like having a flamethrower with no off switch — you incinerate whatever it’s pointed at!

Fortunately, there’s a way to give yourself a moment to think before you speak. I’ll finish this article by explaining the Autopause brain tool.

Avoid emotionally harsh negative speech

What are your hot buttons? What do people say that makes your blood boil?

Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of another person’s anger. It can feel like a verbal or even a physical attack.

Adding the “emotionally harsh” component makes things worse. But it’s not about the words themselves, it’s about how they are delivered. Raised voice, harsh tone of voice (for example, “How could you possibly think that was a good idea?”), and yelling will escalate the conversation into a nosedive even faster.

Here are some forms of emotionally harsh speech to avoid:

  • Insults (name calling, racial slurs, or toward some group of people)
  • Blaming (“We missed the train because of you”)
  • Criticism (“You never care about what I want!”)
  • Contempt (“I can’t believe how stupid you are!”)

Being angry is bad, and starting off angry is worse

C’mon, name a time when you started off angry, and your relationship with the other person was better by the end of the conversation.

No? I can’t either.

The first thing said in a conversation determines how the rest of the conversation will go. When the first thing you say is angry and emotionally harsh, you damage the conversation so much that it’s impossible to recover. The other person will respond with even more anger and harshness, and now you’re facing conversational armageddon.

Relationship expert John Gottman says that in a relationship, it takes 5 positive attempts to repair the damage done to make up for one negative statement. There are several kinds of negative statements, and being angry certainly counts as negative!

Being angry and emotionally harsh multiplies the damage you’ll do. According to a clinical study Gottman did, a “harsh startup” is extremely dangerous: “The couples who divorced started their discussions with a great deal of negative emotion [compared to] those who [were] together six years later.”

Avoid blowing up over something small

Your partner keeps calling you “pumpkin” (really?!) even after you’ve asked them to stop several times.

Your boss is always checking her smartphone while you’re talking to her.

The barista left no room for milk in your coffee cup.

Now these situations may or may not need to be dealt with, but getting angry at the other person will just make things worse. Instead, you can choose not to be derailed by your anger.

Here are some things that work for me:

This last item is particularly important. People can get in your way, be rude or annoying, or do any number of things you don’t like— and this happens every day. When such things inevitably come to pass, you won’t feel blindsided by them. They’re not important enough to deserve a reaction from you.

Ask a question instead

More often than you think, you’re angry because there’s something you don’t understand about the situation. It could be that your assumptions are wrong. Or maybe there’s a good reason why the other person said what they did.

Asking for factual information in a non-threatening way puts the other person at ease and makes them feel they have control over the conversation. And the extra information often makes you less angry.

How to ask

Sure, you’ve had this happen to you. You ask a question, and the other person gives you a non-answer. Like this:

“Hey, you’re not your usual self. What’s going on?”

“Oh, nothing.”

This is called a close-ended question because it closes off further conversation. It signals that the other person doesn’t know or doesn’t want to answer your question. If you try again, you’ll get anger or deflection, and the conversation will now be on a downward path.

Notice how the following question asks for objective information and gets it:

“Hey, you’re not your usual self. What are you feeling right now?”

“Oh, tired. Sad.”

Now you have something to work with.

This interaction is successful because you asked for specific, factual information, and you did so using an open-ended question. These invite the other person to share, and they can’t be answered in a word or phrase.

Here are some more open-ended questions:

Let’s do something fun today. What does the rest of your day look like?”

This draft looks good. What will you need to do before I can send it out?”

You’re telling me the car needs a tune-up. Why do we need to do this?”

Be sure to ask open-ended questions. You never know what you might learn, and I guarantee it’ll lead to a better conversation.

Use Autopause to give yourself time to make a better decision

When you’re angry, you’re hellbent on saying whatever it is that you’ll regret later. Your thoughts are racing in a tight loop, and it’s hard to break out of. You can use the Autopause brain tool to interrupt the loop and give yourself the breathing space you need to do something different.

When you’re in the tight loop, all your thoughts are about you — what you’re going to say, how to defend yourself against what they say back to you, why you have the right to get angry, and so on.

Here is how to use Autopause: When you notice your anger is rising, imagine floating in the air and looking down at yourself. Then using your own name, say to yourself:

“Gregg is very angry. What is Gregg going to do? What is Gregg going to do?”

Autopause detaches you from your “me-centric” point of view, and this enables you to see yourself more objectively. You can then come up with a better action, something other than saying something that will destroy the the conversation. And the mental pause that you’ve just taken makes it possible for you to carry out what you have decided to do.

For me, my anger is easy to accelerate and hard to stop. Anger for anger’s sake derails every conversation, and you may not get it back on track. Even if nothing in this article works for you, remember that you can physically walk away from the other person. This is very important. Walking away may have some consequences for you, but they are always less damaging than going down the path of anger.

Being able to handle your anger is a key skill of adulthood. You will continue to get opportunities to practice this until you can do it when you need to.

“If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow” ―Rainer Maria Rilke



Retired therapist. Married 26 years. Loves board games, deep movies. Boundless curiosity about everything. Over 13,600 people are following my articles.

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Gregg Williams, MFT

Gregg Williams, MFT

Retired therapist. Married 26 years. Loves board games, deep movies. Boundless curiosity about everything. Over 13,600 people are following my articles.