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Just as bird that about
and beats against the cage,
Finding at last no passage out
It sits and sings and so overcomes its rage.

- Abraham Cowley

One of the causes of stress is the inability to cope with conflict in interpersonal relations. Almost all of us, at some time or the other has experienced the feeling of "being stumped for words", (tongue tied)" not being able to say the right thing at the right time", or " blowing our top" when our emotions overcome us. At these times, we are out of control of ourselves. When this feeling of being out of control persist for a long time, it manifests itself in bodily complaints such as headaches, general fatigue, stomach disturbances, rashes and asthma.

The Fight and Flight Response
How do people generally react, when faced with a conflict? Surprisingly, not very different from animals! Have you ever seen a cat when cornered? Its whole body becomes stiff, eyes dilate, tail stands on edge, hairs stand up, and it starts emitting strange sounds. This is called fight response, and may also be termed as `instinctive', `survival', or `protective'. Although slightly modified in present day civilised person, this response is still very much visible in for example the irate, defensive mother-in-low who wants to vindicate herself before her son, or to take a more common example the bus conductor, who in a loud aggressive voice states that he does not have change.

On the other hand, individuals (and so also animals) may opt for the flight response, wherein the organism simply `takes to its heels'. Again its manifestation in modern person is seen in the individual who procrastinates, avoids taking stands, and is constantly eluding or running away from trying or problematic situations, for example, avoiding a friend whom you had promised something, by taking the easy way out: just not being available.

The fight and flight responses are built into our systems and are automatically triggered off, in certain situations. They are usually associated with the emotions of fear, anger/frustration, and they were of immense value to our ancestors (e.g. to run as fast as possible, on seeing some danger in the form of a predatory animal) because you didn't have to think. It just happened. The very emotion of fear/rage, by reflexaction, aroused the survival instincts, preparing them for fight or flight as the case may be.

However the main difference human being and animals is that while the latter have only two sets of responses- Fight and Flight, humans have a third option, that is, verbal problem solving ability. But, the Fight and Flight responses when carried to an extreme, prevent us from exercising our third option of verbal problem solving. How does this happen? Manuel J. Smith explains 1 :
. . . Most of our conflicts and problems come from other people and in dealing with other people, our primitive response are insignificant, in comparison with our uniquely human coping ability of verbal assertive problem solving. Anger-fight and fear-flight actually interferes with this verbal coping ability. When you become angry or afraid, your primitive lower brain centres shut down much to the operation of your new human brain. The blood supply is automatically rerouted away from your brain and gut to your skeletal muscles to prepare them for physical action. Your human problem solving brain is inhibited from processing information. When you get angry or afraid, you just don't think clearly or efficiently. (emphasis added). To an angry or frightened man, 2+2 no longer add up to 4.

Non Assertive, Assertive, and Aggressive Behaviour

There are three possible broad approaches to the conduct of interpersonal relations. The first is to consider one' self only and ride roughshod over others ... The second ... is always to put others before one's self .... The third approach is the golden mean. The individual places himself first, but takes others into account.

- Joseph Wolpe


1. Manual J. Smith. When I say No, I feel Guilty. Bantam Books, New York, 1975

Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons1 distinguish between three types of coping behaviours: Non Assertive, Assertive and Aggressive

Non Assertiveness

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.

- Sir Winston Churchill

Non Assertive behaviour is somewhat similar to the flight response, in that fear stimulating situations, automatically generate inhibited behaviour in the individual concerned. The non assertive person will not stand up for his own rights, even where it is justified. They are usually at a loss for worlds, hesitate to express their opinions, thoughts, or needs clearly and allow others to decide for them. They become anxious, and are always giving in to requests - even obviously unreasonable ones - are without confidence when criticised ( though they make half hearted attempts to defend themselves, and on the whole they are not very happy or satisfied people, because they are always going out of their way to please others, at the cost of self.

The individual who cannot refuse requests, or say `No' without feeling guilty, hesitates to displease others, to express opinions which differ from others, is easily persuaded by glib salesmen into buying things which they do not need or want; the employee who is afraid to assert herself before her bullying husband, are all examples of non assertive behaviour.

Alberti and Emmons distinguish between general non assertiveness and situational non assertiveness. The generally non assertive person is one with very low self esteem. He has a deep feeling of inadequacy, lack of acknowledgement of self worth, and usually suffers from actual physical discomforts brought on by extreme anxiety. The situationally non assertive person is on the whole able to cope with people and situations, but certain situations generate much anxiety in them : the student who can get along well with classmates and people in general, but shivers when they have to face authority figures, like the principal.

1. Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons. Your Perfect Right. Impact Publishers, California, 1970.


I am the inferior of any man whose rights trample underfoot.

- Horace Greeley

There is another class of people, who respond to conflict by becoming aggressive - a fight response. They usually try to subdue other people by shouting in a loud manner, frowning and grimacing, etc. to frighten the other person - they put themselves up by putting others down.
We often meet such people. The village `goonda', or the `neighbourhood bully' are typical examples of aggressive behaviour. Another common Indian scene, involving aggressive behaviour, is the case of the woman who refuses to allow anyone near the community tap, till her pots and pans are filled. Aggressive behaviour is easily recognisable. The whole stance of the individual undergoes a transformation. Their body becomes erect and stiff, and slightly bent towards the other individual (they may even take two steps forward and forward and catch hold of the other person's collar), eyes become big, voice is raised . . . and so on.
On the surface, these people usually appear to have level of self- confidence, to be in command of every situation and to be strong and able to cope with life on their terms. But in reality, the aggressive personality covers up an insecure ego. In order to cover up this insecurity, they compensate by becoming overly aggressive, and apparently in command of every situation.
Aggressiveness also can be either general or situational. The generally aggressive individual has learned early in life that in order to get what you want, it is okay if you ride roughshod over other people's feelings, rights, etc., whereas the situationally aggressive individual responds with aggression only under certain situations.

Aggressiveness can also be expressed indirectly or passively. On the surface these individuals appear to be very mild and sweet, but in order to get what they want, they will use indirect means - manipulation, trickery, wiles, etc. And if they get angry, they are likely to use sneaky ways to get revenge. They can be so indirect that the person whom they anger was about.
Because of the reaction accorded to the aggressive woman and the misery experienced by the passive woman, many women develop the ability to get they want by indirect means, for instance, the woman who will bang the pots and pans in the kitchen to express her anger (when her manipulations do not work out) instead of directly saying what is bothering her.
This brings us to the question, `Is anger the same as aggression?' No! Anger is not the same as aggression. Anger is a natural emotion, also healthy. But aggression is the destructive or inappropriate expression of anger and is unhealthy. You can reason with an angry person, but not with an aggressive person.

Assertiveness is the golden mean between non assertiveness and aggression. The assertive individual has a high self-esteem, values self and others, while the non assertive individual values others but not self, and the aggressive individual values only self but not others.
The assertive individuals, when faced with a conflict is the one who will make use of our third human option of verbal coping ability. Instead of passively giving in to people's demands, on the one extreme, or completely ignoring them on the other extreme, the assertive individual will assess the situation, and take into consideration both points of view.
Assertiveness is a characteristic that is both person and situation specific. For example, if someone makes an unreasonable request - unreasonable for the individual concerned - the assertive person will very simply refuse the request, while acknowledging the other person's feelings. 'I know you will be unhappy, but I don't feel like . . . (whatever)'. The assertive individual takes responsibility for his responses: 'I think', 'I feel', 'I like'. 'I will not'. On the other hand, if the assertive individual is at fault, in that situation, he/she will acknowledge his/her fault or mistake, instead of being defensive and denying it.
Stanlee Phelps and Nancy Austin, in their book, The Assertive Woman, humorously bring out this distinction between the different types of coping behaviour, in the form of true to life stereotypes:

Doris Doormat (passive, non assertive)
Agatha Aggressive (aggressive)
Iris Indirect (indirect aggression)
April Assertive (assertive)

Now, in order to see whether you are able to recognise the three types of behaviour in a variety of situations, see Appendix 1, Assertion Response Discrimination Index(ARDI).

Manipulative Coping
In modern society, especially in the upper classes, people are not openly non assertive, or aggressive. We wear masks and use indirect means to get our way. We are taught, for example, not to be aggressive, it creates bad impressions. So on the surface, we are very sweet, but underneath we are calculating furiously in our minds, the ways in which to "bring the person round", "get even with so and so", "get rid of those guests" (why did they come today?), "
agree to a request" (which we have no intention of complying with ), etc.
It is like a verbal game and the winner is the one who deftly manages to escape, keeping his image intact!
Smith1 has brought this out in the form of a conversation, in his book :
(A friend has asked you to pick up his aunt flying in from Pascagoula at 6.00 p.m.)

YOU : God, Harry! I am so tired at that time of day. (Trying to induce guilt in Harry by implying,   induce guilt in Harry by implying, `How could anybody ask a tired friend to fight the traffic at that time of evening', even though Harry's telling himself, `Hell, I fight the same traffic every evening at five'.)

HARRY: Little old ladies can get really scared, arriving in a strange airport with no one to meet them. (Trying to induce guilt in you by implying, `What kind of a fellow would make a little old lady to through that just because he is a little tired',. while you are thinking, `Where did all this fragile-old-lady business come from? After 50 years of living with the Pascagoula mosquitoes, she must have the endurance of a horse!').

YOU : Well, I'd really have to go out of my way . . . (Trying to induce guilt by implying, `I will really suffer if you make me do this,' while Harry says to himself, `It is a pain in the neck, but you've done it before, and it won't kill you'.

HARRY: If I had to pick her up, I wouldn't even get there until 7.30 (suggesting that you are ignorant of the facts by implying, `My trip would be much longer and harder than yours', except you think, `Where and what would he be coming from? He's probably closer to the airport than I am!').

Smith concludes :

"The farce of this manipulative-counter-manipulative inter-change is, that who goes to the airport, you or Harry, does not depend upon what you want, but upon whoever can make the other one feel guiltier."

1. Smith, op. cit.

Manipulative coping usually leaves you frustrated, irritated and anxious, and these feelings are eventually expressed by you in verbal fighting or running away. As a result of this unresolved internal conflict between our natural wants and our childhood beliefs, we are left with some really dismal choices:

  1. We can do what someone else wants, be frustrated very often, get depressed, withdraw from people and lose our self respect;
  2. We can do what we want angrily, alienate other people and lose our self respect ;
  3. We can avoid conflict by running away from it and the people who cause it, and lose our self respect.

Role of Anger and the Difference Between Anger and Aggression

Anger is a feeling, an emotion just like fear, joy, sorrow, grief, etc. Everyone feels anger, sometime or the other, but the ways in which we show our anger are different. For example, let us say you're walking on the road, and you accidentally brush someone as you pass by. Now, the other person can react in either one of the following ways:

  1. Direct put down and verbal aggression: "Damn it, can't you watch where you're going! You  fool ..!"
  2. Indirect put down: "Can't you see without your glasses on?" or "Oh, have you forgotten to wear your glasses today ?"
  3. Non verbal put-down : a dirty look.
  4. Saying nothing.

Some people claim that they never get angry. Do not believe them. They do get angry, but they have learned to control it, so as not to openly show it. Such controlled individuals typically suffer from migraine headaches, asthma, ulcer, and skin rashes.

Anger and its expression is a healthy thing - if used constructively. Simple direct verbal expression of your anger is much better than bottling it up or using indirect means - taunting, making snide remarks, or even non verbal put-downs like, making faces, refusing to talk, sulking, etc. - to take revenge on the person who angered you. Even saying simply and forcefully, "I am very angry with you" is preferable to calling names or abusing or physical exertion like banging doors, and throwing things.

People often appreciate it when you directly confront them with your anger, rather than do something nasty, or sly to hurt the person concerned. A classic example of this is that of newly weds. After the honeymoon is over, the new discovers many objectionable habits in her husband. Not wishing to directly confront him, as she is afraid to "spoil their relationship" (or so she thinks), she finds another way out to vent her feelings. When husband goes to work, she rings up her mother and given vent to her hostile feelings. Worse, when all the family gathers together, she berates him in front of everyone - the case of washing your dirty linen in public . . . Little does she realise that this mode of expressing anger is much more harmful to their marriage then talking it over with her husband in private. This way only serves to embitter her husband and make him lose his love and respect for her. If on the other hand, she had chosen to courageously assert herself by directly telling him of her feelings, it would have boded much better for their marriage.

Very often people confuse angry feelings with aggressive behaviour. According to Alberti and Emmons 1
. . . aggression is not the same thing as anger! Anger is a perfectly natural, healthy human which may be expressed in a number of ways, including aggressively, non-assertively, assertively or not at all. Anger is a feeling, an emotion we all feel at times. Aggression is a behavioural style of expression.

Dealing with your Anger : A healthy approach to dealing with anger is to :

  1. Recognise and allow yourself to believe that anger is a natural healthy, non evil human feeling. Everyone feels it, we just don't all express it. You needn't fear your anger.
  2. Remember that you are responsible for your own feelings. You got angry at what happened, the other person didn't "make" you angry.
  3. Remember that anger and aggression are not the same thing. Anger can be expressed assertively.
  4. Learn to relax. If you have developed the skill of relaxing, learn to apply this response, when your anger is triggered.
  5. Develop assertive methods for expressing your anger : be spontaneous, don't wait and let it build up resentment ; state it directly; avoid sarcasm and innuendo; use honest, expressive language; avoid name-calling; put downs, and physical attacks.

1. Alberti and Emmons. op. cit., p. 87.

  1. Keep your life clear. Deal with issues when they arise, when you feel the feeling - not after hours/days/weeks of "stewing" about it.

Go ahead! Get angry! But develop a positive, assertive style for expressing it . You and those around you will appreciate it.
According to the Vedanitc tradition, there are three ways of expressing anger :

  1. Sathvic : when a person without any attachment to the feeling of anger and without caring for the result for himself, but for the good of the person, to correct him and to offer the whole process to the Divinity in the self or outside and not feeling the responsibility of the doer.
  2. Rajasic : where a person wants to correct the evil in the other as well as for the appreciation and does not surrender the process to God. When successful, he claims the success, but when he fails, he blames God.
  3. Tamasic : unconscious intervention into the personal problems without being invited to correct them and imposing your own ideas of good and bad and trying to correct them in good faith that you believe you are doing the ultimate good ( you are unaware of your own desires).

Dealing with another's anger : When confronted with a direct verbal put-down, the following four steps are valuable -

  1. admit it when you are wrong, even in the face of insult.
  2. acknowledge the person's feelings.
  3. assert yourself about the way he or she is reacting.
  4. give a short statement to bring the encounter to an end.

For example, " I apologize for brushing against you. I did not do it intentionally. You're obviously upset, but I do not like you calling me names or yelling at me. I can get your point without that."

The best way to handle an indirect put-down is to first ask for more information : "What are you saying?", "What do you mean?"

And in case of a non verbal put-down, it is best to attempt to get the person to use words instead of gestures.
See Appendix 6 if you want to role play expression of your anger.