If you follow the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, you know that Calvin, from time to time, does some things that upset his Dad. And it is often not hard to understand why his father might become angry at some of Calvin’s actions.
Here we see Calvin’s dad blowing up in anger. My wife and I raised two sons, and I wouldn’t be honest if I claimed that I never lost my temper with them. And so, I can certainly sympathize with Calvin’s dad in the above comic.
At the same time that I sympathize with Calvin’s dad, I do want to encourage people to consider the value of an alternative to reacting by screaming in fury. I want to advocate considering transforming the anger into challenge (see post titled ANGER SUPPRESSION VERSUS CHALLENGE).
Let’s suppose that you are Calvin’s dad and just before you blow up in anger, you pause because you realize you are becoming angry. You had practiced several times over the past week using a special skill to handle this type of situation, and you find that now you can smoothly and comfortably use that skill. You quickly summarize for Calvin the conflict by saying in a warm, friendly voice, “Calvin, yesterday you desired to have dessert, and I interfered with your desire because I didn’t let you have any. You feel that I am guilty of being unfair for punishing you for flooding the house. In the future, you would like me to handle this type of situation in a better way. Is that right?”
After summarizing the conflict in this way, you listen to Calvin’s reply. Then you explain in a pleasant voice that you will think about his concern over the next few days.
The next day, you have calmed down. You begin to try to come up with at least two alternatives to deal with Calvin. Then you carefully weigh whatever you can think of about the costs and risks of negative consequences, as well as positive consequences, that could flow from each alternative. You discuss this with your wife and some others that you respect. Once you come up with an alternative with which you feel comfortable, you close your eyes and imagine carrying out the alternative with charm, courage, and determination. You practice this again in your mind on two other occasions . Finally, you go back to Calvin and give your plan a try.
This, in brief is an example of transforming anger into challenge.
Now, when we start to consider alternatives to our angry outbursts, sometimes people will discourage any consideration of alternatives other than the one they believe is best.
Not only do we find that some people with whom we discuss alternatives insist that only one is good and all others are a ridiculous waste of time to even consider, sometimes we, too, will start with the bias that there really is only one alternative that is best even before we first take a good hard look at the pros and cons of other alternatives. This attitude is viewed as being “closed-minded.” Challenge requires a more “open-minded” attitude.
When we utilize challenge, we don’t make a decision by simply adding up the gains and then subtracting the losses for each alternative. Some gains are far more important than others. A young woman contemplating having a baby might list on the negative side the pain of childbirth, cost of adding the baby to her health plan, cost to feed the baby, loss of quiet personal time, and nastiness of changing diapers, but just the single positive of having a sweet loving baby as part of the family might far outweigh all of these negatives. And so, the best we can do is to use an approach similar to what Benjamin Franklin proposed back in 1772. After listing the pros and cons of each alternative during three or four days, he explained that,
…I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two reasons con, equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if, after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly. And, though the weight of reasons cannot be taken with the precision of algebraic quantities, yet when each is thus considered, separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less liable to make a rash step, and in fact I have found great advantage from this kind of equation, in what may be called moral or prudential algebra. (Letter dated September 19, 1772, to the British scientist, Joseph Priestly.)
Franklin’s approach seems to suggest that once the alternatives are identified our task is to simply decide which is best by weighing the pros and cons. But I often find myself, after looking over the pros and cons of each alternative, tweaking one or more of the alternatives depending on the circumstances with which I am dealing.
Thus, I am not tied to the alternatives I first come up with. Those alternatives can be modified as I think more deeply about their pros and cons. For example, once a teacher referred a 14-year old boy to me because he was being very disrespectful to her whenever she criticized him. Let’s call him Carl.
In some such cases, just developing a pleasant relationship with the student for a few minutes, and then asking him to treat his teacher with more respect is enough to see a marked improvement. And sometimes it is not enough.
As I worked with Carl, it soon became apparent that even if he tried to be more friendly and respectful, he would end up botching the attempt. And so I set myself on teaching him some specific skills.
After I went over the five levels of responding to criticism with Carl and he showed me in role plays that he had mastered the ability to act the highest two levels, we filled out a balance sheet together for him to consider the positives and negatives for each of two alternatives:
- Use at least a level four response whenever the teacher criticizes him
- Continue doing what he had been doing.
After filling out the balance sheet, Carl very quickly pointed out that one of the negatives for choosing the first alternative was that his two friends in the class would lose respect for him. That single negative was enough for him to completely discount any of its positives and he let me know that he therefore decided to continue to be disrespectful to his teacher whenever she criticized him. I could have left it at that, but I tried to figure out if there was a way to tweak the more mature responding alternative so that the single negative would no longer be the deciding factor.
We ended up modifying the first alternative. If he chose it, Carl would first have a discussion with his two friends about the five levels of responding to criticism. Carl would begin by explaining the five levels and then asking his friends how they would want him to respond when they criticized him. Then this alternative called for Carl to explain to his friends that he was in a tough spot because if he kept acting disrespectfully to the teacher, his parent would be called, he would go to in-school suspension after each disrespectful act, and if he still didn’t stop, he would be referred to a committee that would consider placing him in a special education class. This plan also called for Carl to let his friends know that after trying to help Carl work through his disrespectful behavior, the teacher intends to put both of Carl’s friends through the same process he is going through unless they stopped their disrespectful behavior on their own. Finally, he was to ask his friends what they thought he should do.
Before Carl decided on whether or not he should choose this alternative or the one that had him continue to be disrespectful to his teacher, I had him act out some role-plays. First, he acted himself discussing with his friends the alternatives he was facing and I acted the part of his friends. Then we reversed roles with Carl playing the part of his friends while I took a shot at being Carl. We switched these roles back and forth several times over the course of an hour meeting.
Once Carl found he was able to get comfortable having this type of discussion with his friends, he came to agree the tweaked alternative was worth a try. And it turned out that his friends agreed that Carl could be respectful to his teacher when she criticized him, but that he couldn’t be too “lovey-dovey” with her or it would make them throw-up.
Interestingly, once he and his friends began to treat the teacher with more respect, she began to treat them with more respect, and the boys’ initial dislike for the teacher changed, and she became one of their favorite teachers.
This example illustrates that we need not simply reject an alternative when one or more of its negatives lead us to reject it. We can instead consider whether or not we can make some changes to the alternative that would make one of the negatives less problematic. Similarly, we may seek to find ways to make one of the positives of an alternative more positive. And so, there is no single way to use this type of tool. Feel free to experiment with it as you deem fits the current 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.