Society has for a long time slavishly followed the principle that venting one’s anger is cathartic and reduces inner turmoil and distress. This principle is based upon the theory that unexpressed emotional stress and anger builds up over time and creates internal pressures within a person which if left unexpressed, leads to mental imbalance and disorder. The theory posits that rather than keeping negative emotions bottled up inside, one needs to release them through the process of venting which in turn facilitates the regaining of emotional equilibrium and well-being.
“Not True” is the united statement coming from a myriad of scientists who have studied the effect of this theory through various controlled experiments using human subjects.
In fact, according to the scientists telling an angry person to vent their anger through the repeated recounting of the incident or through the pounding of a pillow in belief that it is their nemesis’ face that is the target of their fists, is probably the worst possible piece of advice to give to an angry person.
According to the 2002 research findings of the psychologist Brad Bushman, people who engage in venting activities significantly increase their anger levels rather than decrease them. The actions of venting being somewhat akin to that of pouring petrol on a flickering flame.
Bushman’s research, in line with the findings of other notable psychologists, indicates that undertaking an aggressive activity when angry – even if the person has been distracted from thinking about what has caused the anger – increases overall levels of aggression. According to Bushman and others, contrary to widespread belief, not-venting as opposed to venting is the most effective mechanism for reducing a build-up of internal tension and turmoil.
Clearly the current research is not proposing that one never thinks about what it is that is causing one to feel angry, but rather it proposes that once the emotion is recognised that this is then translated into something more constructive. For example, through carefully selecting someone to confide in who is not only an empathic, confidential listener but also objective, detached and capable of offering options for effectively resolving the issues of anger and frustration. The advantage of the confidante being both objective and detached is that they are less likely to be drawn into the emotion and better placed to put forward creative solutions that might otherwise not even have been contemplated.
From a mediator’s standpoint, the research findings have major implications for mediation. It is widely accepted that communicating perspectives during a joint session as to the issues surrounding the dispute (i.e. its cause, origin and impact from a personal perspective) is a beneficial and essential part of the process towards prompt resolution of the dispute. The difficulty herewith is however that this process can quickly get out of control in the hands of an inexperienced or inattentive mediator with the result hereof being an increase in anger and animosity between the story-teller and the recipient of the story. The story-teller quickly becoming increasingly resentful and vindictive towards the other party with the recipient on the other hand becoming progressively more defensive and challenging of the story-teller’s perspective.
Probably the best way to avoid the story-telling/perspective-sharing process of the first session (and any ensuing session) from becoming an exercise in uncontrolled venting is through maintaining a “tight-grip” on this process, but without this being apparent to the parties or in any way unnecessarily restricting their verbalising of their perspective on the dispute. The mechanisms for this include setting down from the outset, the ground-rules for communication between the parties; setting down time-frames for perspective sharing and keeping to those time-frames; and the prudent and judicious use of the tools of conflict resolution namely, acknowledging, reframing, summarising and mutualising in order to keep tension levels stable and manageable.
While venting may well fuel the fire and ultimately quell the urge to settle a dispute, “telling one’s story” and the sharing of perspectives in a supportive and empathic mediation environment that encourages respectful but open and honest communication is like the Balm of Gilead for an open and oozing wound.