The metaphor of a sea can give us an intuitive sense of how conflict and anger are related.

Anger is like a region on the Great Sea of Conflict that can be very dangerous.  When a master sailor finds she is in the region of anger and a storm begins to develop, she has already prepared herself.   She has practiced some very specific skills when it was relatively safe.  She knew beforehand that she didn’t want to first start to figure out what to do when she finds herself in a crisis situation.   During a crisis it is hard to think clearly and there might not be enough time to figure out the most promising strategy.

Now, in real life, many people don’t see any need to practice some skills when they are in a calm state so that they can better deal with anger storms.  Here’s a little story that helps to explain why people neglect to do this.


Carl has grown to like Marie quite a lot.  But on Tuesday, Carl expresses his opinion on a subject and Marie becomes angry and starts to yell at him while calling him names.  Although Carl listens quietly and then tells Marie that he appreciates her concerns, inwardly he doesn’t like the way she handled her disagreement with him.  Carl never shows Marie that how she has acted has turned him off. 

From Marie’s perspective, she likes the way she stood up for what she believes in and admires the way she doesn’t take any crap from anyone.  Moreover, from what she observed from Carl’s reaction, she thinks everything is just fine.  She sees no reason why, when she became angry at Carl, she would have been better off respectfully summarizing his position and then, noticing the angry storm blowing up within her mind, putting off her comments till she had some time to calmly think them over.

A few days later, Carl thinks about who he should ask out next Saturday night…

Illustration by Deanna Martinez


When Marie does not get asked out on Saturday night by a guy she really, really likes, she may not come to realize that her display of anger was the cause.

Many people don’t show others how they feel when someone begins to express their anger by yelling and name calling.  Therefore, many people never come to realize fully that the way they express their anger can lead to people losing respect for them.  This loss of respect can lead to losing friends, employment and promotions.  Since many people just don’t see the negative reaction to how they angrily respond, the idea that they should learn to react differently seems wrong, and even unnatural.

But consider what happens when human beings have to go poop.  When they are first born, they just empty their bowels anywhere.  No one that I know buys the argument that releasing your bowels whenever you feel like doing it is the natural way to live, and that suppressing the urge to release your bowel movements would be unhealthy.  Most of us have learned that we can learn to wait a bit until we get to a more private place to do this type of business.  No real damage is done if we can get to a bathroom in a reasonable period of time.

It is similar with anger.  To not wait until you get to a private place will end up leaving you in a nasty smelling icky situation that would not be at all in your own best interest or in the interest of others you happen to be with.

timeout2We take timeouts in many sports for three reasons.  We want to take some time to catch our breath, to think about what has just been happening, and to formulate a plan to go forward.  The wise use of timeouts can greatly increase the chance for winning.  It is for the same reasons why we wisely call timeouts in an anger arousing situation.

timeoutIn different sports, time outs are called in a very specific manner.  In one, a flag might be thrown down.  In another, a coach has to make a letter “T” with his or her hands.  Those who are in charge of calling for timeouts in a specific sport must be well practiced in how to do this so that they can do so at just the right moment.  It is similar with learning how and when to call time out when you become angry.

Here’s an approach for this type of calling timeout that I would like you to consider.

timeout3When you see that you are becoming angry, or the other party is, make a statement in a warm friendly manner indicating that you are very interested in what was said, you plan to think a little more about this over the next few days and then you’ll be ready to discuss this further.  Then, let the other person have the last words while you listen in a caring way.

We’ll be discussing the benefits of using this approach in future posts and also how to practice this skill so that you can employ it even in the most frustrating circumstances.


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.


The Great Sea of Conflict

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. FROM ANGER TO CHALLENGE: A STEP ONE EXAMPLE | Name Calling, Insults and Teasing
    September 22, 2013 - 9:05 am

  2. Anger is a misunderstood emotion. I like the suggestions but a cognitive framework that I find helpful is to realize that anger is an expression of what one of my 12 year old clients called “hurtin feellins, like in country and western music.” combined with a sense of injustice or belief that something is unfair.

  3. Hi Herb Wiseman, I like the way you and your 12 year old client is thinking about this emotion of anger. I would just add that from what you describe, there are two emotions that can come about–sadness and anger. Anger becomes present, as I see it, when we find ourselves engaging in a mixture of insulting, throwing threats, shouting, glaring, and aggressive acts.

  4. This is the first time have seen your blog, I have come to view anger as a legitimate emotional state and as you point out it’s the way anger is expressed that is often the element that makes resolution more difficult. I try to interpret others anger (and my own) as a response to the perception of a threat and therefore if I can understand the threat I can truly listen to what s being said and understand why the perception s there. Anger for me is a legitimate emotional state and can be the driver of good change, why would we oppose dictators if we had no emotional response? It’s not logic at work (logic for me is not logic if no emotional content is included) it’s emotions.
    Some of the perceived threats include emotional, intellectual (some of the academic settings I have been in are very aggressive, look at Richard Dawkins when his ideas are challenged), physical (the obvious one) etc. Find which is driving and a dialogue can be opened.
    Also as an additional though I am surprised how many times people believe they are being assertive when they are using aggressive presentations.

  5. I’ve read once , in the comment section underneath a dalai lama post, that sometimes being angry can be good and visa versa that being calm can sometimes be bad… I tend to agree with that most of the times….

    • Hi Jonathan Irving and Alain Bos,

      Jon, you say anger is a legitimate emotion, but we have to distinguish how we express our emotions. I agree with that. Alain, I agree that sometimes being angry can be good. I do want to clear up one point though. Just because someone is not angry doesn’t mean the person has to act in a calm manner. We can act vigorously, with great determination, without resorting to anger. There is a sense of challenge that is worth thinking about as an alternative to anger. When we become angry, we can consider whether we want to convert the anger into a sense of challenge, which may be better than staying with the anger.

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