Control Anger During Conflict like a Fly on the Wall

Tammy Lenski’s Conflict Zen Blog

Trying to control anger by focusing on angry thoughts and hurt feelings is like fanning the flames. It’s far more effective to pretend you’re a fly on the wall of a situation, new research confirms.

In situations that trigger anger, you probably tend to focus on your anger and hurt, trying to understand it, get the other person to see what they’ve done, perhaps even wallowing in it a bit, self-righteously. You allow yourself to be immersed in it.

But it’s a trap: This “self-immersive” behavior increases the likelihood you’ll act more aggressively in response. Says Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, “The worst thing to do in an anger-inducing situation is what people normally do: try to focus on their hurt and angry feelings to understand them…If you focus too much on how you’re feeling, it usually backfires.”

What to do instead? View the situation as though you’re a fly on the wall. This “self-distancing” gives you a more detached view and helps you calm angry feelings, even in the heat of the moment. When participants in one of Bushman’s studies were instructed to “move away from the situation to a point where you can now watch the event unfold from a distance…watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you all over again,” they had fewer aggressive thoughts and felt less angry than those who used the self-immersed approach and those in a control group, who received no instructions.

Of course, most of us don’t have an executive coach standing with us during arguments with our loved ones, friends, or colleagues. So this is a habit to cultivate and not one that you may successfully carry off the first time you try it. Commit to teaching yourself to do it and practice when the opportunity arises.

I can say from personal experience and from my coaching work with clients that this is a learnable, method to control anger during conflict. I’ve also taught some of my clients this quick mini-meditation, which achieves similar results and can be done anytime.

Mediators who are reading this: This method can also be used during mediation. I’ve successfully helped angry mediation participants to control anger by teaching them this approach on the fly (ha!) and asking them to try it.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


ADR-Related Legislation

Business Conflict Blog by Peter Phillips Larson Frisby, of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office, recently offered an update on the status of federal ADR legislation and other related measures. Some...

By F. Peter Phillips

Micro-blogging goes mainstream says Wall Street Journal

From the Mediator Tech blog of Tammy Lenski. Last summer I wrote Twitter 101 for Mediators, offering ideas for getting started with the micro-blogging platform and reasons Twitter could be...

By Tammy Lenski

Belgrade Combating Fear Project

Project MOST, of the Centre for Anti-War Action, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, has been active in helping citizens overcome the trauma of war as a necessary first step towards breaking the...

By Paul Wahrhaftig

Find a Mediator