Most relationships turn out poorly. The divorce rate is more than 50 percent and job disengagement is around 70 percent. There’s a pattern to the demise of positive connections. While people experience a great many positive emotions when starting new relationships, over time frustration and disappointment inevitably creates negativity.
People make mistakes, encounter setbacks, and realize the downside characteristics of others. Communication breaks down, most often due to people playing the blame game.
Over time resentment, disengagement and isolation build. Because conflicts remain unresolved, people live in their silos and focus on taking care of themselves. Their relationships become characterized by cold civility punctuated by occasional hostile outbursts or passive-aggressive putdowns.
The importance of negativity
Researchers have also explored how people in optimal relationships manage their negative emotions such that they don’t cause permanent damage in their relationships.
In fact, studies show that, expressed in the right way, negativity can be good for relationships. Two of the world’s most prominent positive psychology researchers, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, wrote a book on “The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your ‘Good’ Self – Drives Success and Fulfillment.” They concluded:
“Positivity alone is insufficient to the task of helping us navigate social interactions and relationships. Anger is a tool that helps us read and respond to upsetting social situations.
“As for its benefits, research overwhelmingly indicates that feeling angry increases optimism, creativity and effective performance, and that expressing anger leads to more successful negotiations and a fast track for mobilizing people into agents of change.”
Express your anger
Step one: Breathe. To down regulate the emotional flooding that accompanies negative reactions, you must slow down your body’s automatic release of stress chemicals preparing you for fight or flight. Special Forces troops are taught 4×4 breathing to calm themselves down in combat situations: Count to 4 when you inhale, count to 4 as you hold your breath, do another 4 count as you exhale, and count to 4 before you inhale again.
Repeat this process until your breathing is under control, which enables your brain to slow down enough to be able to return to rational thinking.
Step two: Declare your distress. When you do start talking about your negative emotions, warn the people involved that you’re feeling extremely uncomfortable with what is transpiring. Tell them that you’re intensely emotional, and that right now it’s difficult for you to communicate effectively.
Apologize for initiating a difficult discussion by saying something like, “I’m feeling upset right now, which is making it hard for me to express myself. But I feel it’s important for me to address the situation because it’s bothering me so much.”
Step three: Picture a positive outcome. Ask yourself, “What would it look like if this problem was resolved?” Think about what would make things right for you. Then ask the other person to describe what they think would be a positive outcome. Finally, imagine what a win-win outcome might look like that gives each of you most of what you want.
Step four: Assume a power position. Be aware of averting your eyes, closing up, crossing your arms, and signaling a low power position. Instead, assume a powerful posture, spreading out, looking the person in the eye, and leaning forward. Put your hands on the table, on your hips, or make a fist.
Do NOT demean the other person, scream or even use a hostile tone. DO assert your idea for a win-win solution.
Step five: Put your anger to work. Remember that you are trying to influence what is going to happen in the future. Speak slowly, pause frequently and remain focused on getting to a win-win outcome. State your objections if the other person’s proposed outcome doesn’t seem fair. Explain what you think would be right and why it would be mutually beneficial.
Step six: Assess the situation. Notice if negative emotions escalate or if the tension subsides. If you struggle to maintain your composure, slow your breathing down to stay in control. Keep the conversation moving toward a solution by asking the other individual what they believe would be a mutually acceptable outcome.
If necessary, go back and repeat the process: Manage your breathing, recall your outcome, affirm your desire to find a mutually agreeable result, remain standing strong and offer another solution.
Take a time out if the conversation becomes gridlocked or hostile. Give it 30 minutes before returning to the discussion. Keep talking until you find a mutually agreeable resolution.