Constructive Anger

How to deal with anger.

signs of fear

Constructive Anger

September 22, 2016

The following excerpt about constructive anger is taken from the book of dialogue between the Dalai Lama and myself, entitled Emotional Awareness (2009). Having just reread it, I found nothing to change; I still believe it raises the right question, makes a useful suggestion and offers a practice to learn it. It is only when life itself is threatened (our own or that of others) that we might need to focus on the actor rather than the action. Fortunately, that is a rare occurrence in the lives of most of us.


“Constructive Anger” Excerpt from Emotional Awareness, pp. 124-5

Ekman: I think [there is] a crucial issue for how people are educated about the way in which they can experience anger in a constructive fashion. You cannot get rid of anger, but you can learn how to use it in a way that is good for you. And the way that is good for you is not to hurt the other person. That almost always backfires. Unless you eliminate him or her, the person will come back and hurt you.

Dalai Lama: (Translated.) There is a famous story in the Buddhist texts about a Bodhisattva (in Mahayana Buddhism, this is known as a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings*). This story seems to suggest an interesting take on the question, How can there be a compassion-motivated anger? The story is there is a Bodhisattva who is traveling on a boat. There is also a mass murderer on the boat and the Bodhisattva finds out that this person is going to kill all the other passengers. After failing to persuade the potential murderer to desist from what he is planning to do, he kills the mass murderer. The idea is that the Bodhisattva has full compassion for this potential murderer, but at the same time total disapproval of the act that he was about to commit. He has compassion for the mass murderer but anger against the act he is about to perform.

Ekman: In the 2000 conference, a group of us met one night to plan the research project to respond to your challenge, “Is this going to be just talk, good karma, or is something going to happen?” There were about six of us sitting around, beginning to plan. One of the participants kept raising obstacles: “You should not do this,” “you are reinventing the wheel,” and “why do you think you need to do this?” Mark Greenberg showed a beautiful example of constructive anger, because this person was putting an obstacle in our way. Mark said, “We really want to proceed, and if you want to participate, then we welcome you here. But if you do not want to participate, you should not stay in this meeting. You should let us do what we want to do.” He said it with strength. I asked him afterward, “Were you angry” and he said, “Yes.” But it was a very constructive anger. There was no element of trying to harm. He did not say, “Why do you think you know more than we know?” That would be harmful, right? Mark’s anger was totally focused on the action, removing the obstacle. Focusing anger on the objectionable action, not the actor, appears also in the writings of an emotion theorist, the late Richard Lazarus, who was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in exactly the same terms. What is needed, I think, is to give people practice in doing it. You could start with a situation in which anger was directed at the actor, and ask how you could instead direct the anger at the act. But that does not have as much life and vitality. We need exercises for developing this skill. When I anticipate that I will need to discuss an issue with my wife about which there might be some conflict, ahead of time I plan in my mind how I am going to deal with it. I actually go through a rehearsal in my mind: how I will direct my disagreement only at the act and be careful not to criticize her. I do not let her know that that is what I am doing. I have found it to be useful, and often successful, in finding a solution to our disagreement. You have to practice focusing on the act that is causing difficulty, not the actor; you cannot just think about it. This practice is based on a realization of our interdependence, but it is a practice, in my example, rehearsed in the mind.

* This definition has been provided to support reader understanding and was not verbally said by the Dalai Lama in this particular conversation.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

Emblematic Slips

The meaning of our movements and gestures.

signs of fear

Emblematic slips

September 7, 2016

Types of Movement

I don’t use the term gesture because it is too imprecise. Instead, I distinguish three very different ways in which movements (usually of the hands, but sometimes of the head or shoulders) provide information.

  • Illustrators is a term I coined for those movements that occur during speech as it is spoken: tracing the flow of thought, providing emphasis, making an action the speech is referring to, showing a spatial relationship or drawing a picture in the air. There are ethnic and cultural differences in the type of illustrator shown and individual differences in the frequency of illustrators. In English speaking cultures, illustrators increase with enthusiasm and involvement in what is being said, and listeners are attentive to people when they illustrate. We have not studied illustrators in other cultures so I don’t know if this applies, but suspect it might.

  • Manipulators is a term I use in which one body part (usually the hand) manipulates another body part (the other hand, hair, some part of the face or an object). Manipulators include a variety of actions: scratching, picking, squeezing, twisting, tapping, grooming and so forth. Manipulators increase with discomfort, but they also occur when people are relaxed (letting their hair down). There are large individual differences in what way and how often people show manipulators. Mistakenly, observers infer someone is untrustworthy or lying if they frequently show manipulators, but our findings do not support that judgment.

  • Emblems is a term used by the pioneer in the study of gestures, David Efron, for movements that have a precise meaning known by all members of an ethnic group, sub-culture, or culture. Emblems typically signal messages just as deliberately and consciously as the words that are spoken. Sometimes they are used instead of words, especially when there is a need for silence, as between hunters or playgoers at different locations in an audience. During speech, emblems can replace or repeat a word.

Concealed Emotions

Sometimes when people believe they should not or cannot reveal something they are thinking, emblematic slips occur. These slips reveal information the person wants to conceal, often without their knowledge that they are doing so. When that occurs, only a fragment of the emblem may be shown and often it is outside of what I have called the presentation position, the space right in front of the person’s chest or face.

The emblematic slip I have seen most often in my research on lying is a fragment of the shrug emblem, denoting ‘inability’, or ‘I don’t know’. In Darwin’s book on expression, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” the shrug is shown with the palms up; often they are rotated in this position. The shrug may also be shown with raising the shoulders and dropping them. There is another version of the shrug that can be seen in the lips and forehead. It is also possible to show all three components: the hands palm up and rotating, the shoulders raised and dropped, and the lip and forehead movement.

Here is Darwin’s description of the shrug:

“When a man wishes to show that he cannot do something, or prevent something being done, he often raises with a quick movement both shoulders. At the same time, if the whole gesture is completed, he bends his elbows closely inwards, raises his open hands, turning them outwards, with the fingers separated. The head is often thrown a little on one side; the eyebrows are elevated, and this causes wrinkles across the forehead. The mouth is generally opened. … The gesture varies in all degrees from the complex movement, just described to only a momentary and scarcely perceptible raising of both shoulders; or, as I have noticed in a lady sitting in an armchair, to the mere turning slightly outwards of the open hands with separated fingers. … It accompanies such speeches as, “It was not my fault’; ‘It is impossible for me to grant this favour’. … As shrugging the shoulders generally implies ‘I cannot do this or that’, so by a slight change, it sometimes implies ‘I won’t do it’”.

Darwin believed that this gesture was innate. It was reported in many diverse cultures and was observed in the blind and deaf Laura Bridgman.

We have observed some fragment of the shrug, a slight rotation of one hand or slight raising of just one shoulder, in conversations that suggest a contradiction to what the person is actually saying – I have called this inconsistency a hot spot – which needs to be investigated further. It typically directly contradicts the confidence, certainty or affirmation that occurs in the speaker’s words or behavior. It has proven to be the most valuable signal that a person is lying, but it does not always occur during deception. As with other signs of lying we have discovered, its absence means nothing, though its presence is revealing.

A third emblematic slip we have found is a very tiny fragment of the head shake ‘no’ or head nod ‘yes’, directly contradicting the words that are spoken.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.