Anger and how to deal with it is a major challenge when working with conflict. How we understand and deal with it will significantly determine the extent to which a conflict escalates or de-escalates. It will also determine whether the conflict will be brought to an acceptable close through resolution or reconciliation. It is difficult to be reconciled with some one if you are still angry. It suggests outstanding or unfinished business which almost inevitably recapitulates and recycles the conflict – even if days or years later. Learning to deal effectively with anger therefore can greatly enhance our capacity to handle conflict successfully even to turn it into an opportunity for growth and transformation.
This paper sets out to draw together some of the concepts and practices which may be of value in helping us to understand and benefit from the experience of anger in conflict situations. Neither anger nor conflict are welcomed in everyday experience. Both are generally understood and handled poorly, often at a cost of destructive or damaging outcomes. I have come to value both anger and conflict and believe that they can play a beneficial role in the personal growth, in learning and in the development of organisations and communities.
Cultural Attitudes To Anger
Cultural attitudes to anger are very different and give some indication as to what might be acceptable in a given social milieu apart from whatever personal stance or view we may hold. For example it is more acceptable for men to openly express anger than it is for women in most “western” societies. Our personal relationships, our families, the organisations we work in, as well as our culture, tend to evolve a set of rules or conventions about how anger as well as conflict should be handled. These are some times explicit but more often are not and need to be inferred from observable behaviour. Not all are either helpful or constructive. It can help to know what these different styles and beliefs about handling conflict are, especially if you choose a way which is different from the norm.
If you ask people what their images or experience of anger are, most will refer to raised voices, abusive language, twisted facial grimaces, and flashing eyes. Their experience in response to anger may be one of shock, fear, defence, retaliation or flight. Anger has bad press, people are generally uncomfortable with it and will tend to avoid it given the chance. These images and experience relate mostly to the extroverted or expressed form of anger, indeed anger is often erroneously conflated with violence in many people’s mindsets.
For others anger is more camouflaged and circumspect – less obvious to the observer, resulting from learned or conditioned ways of handling it or because of the potentially high cost of expressing it openly – currently or in the past Rubin (1969) suggests that the more obvious and vibrant form of anger described above is often twisted or perverted into a range of “assorted poisons”, often turned in on oneself rather than outward toward the world in what many would view as a more healthy expression. He sees anxiety, depression, guilt, overeating and self-imposed starvation, for example, as some of the twisted and distorted forms which anger can take – often camouflaging it’s origin in the process – probably for reasons of self- protection, real or imagined.
What Exactly Are We Talking About?
It is important that we agree about what we mean when we speak of both anger and conflict so we can engage in meaningful dialogue. Anger and conflict may be understood in several different ways and it is questionable whether any one definition of either will provide a sufficient basis for understanding and action.
In speaking of anger it is probably best if we speak of the whole family or continuum of “anger” emotion including, vexation, irritation, annoyance, hostility, and so on, right through to rage or fury. Some may argue that the differences between them are just a matter of quantity or intensity while others would argue that the difference is qualitative. For the purposes of this paper I will speak of the whole family except where I make specific comment about one or other expression. For the most part I find it helpful to view anger as an emotion though there is a worthwhile case for treating it as thought which I shall come to later.
It is also helpful to make a distinction between the visceral experience of the feeling of anger, the verbal or non-verbal expression of that feeling, and any action to which the feeling may give rise. All three of these may be experienced as synonymous by a one or two year old child, for example, or somebody consumed by rage, but it is helpful both conceptually and practically to separate them out.
The following are some common ways of explaining the origins of anger from different perspectives.
Anger As Un-Met Need – A Psychological Perspective
Emotion in general can be understood as indicative of met or unmet needs. Positive emotions are indicative of met needs and negative emotions indicative of unmet needs. The need most often associated with anger indicates a lack of, or blocked choice or freedom (Heron). Anger can therefore be understood as a protective response when our freedom of action is impeded or interfered with. In common parlance, we get angry when someone gets in the way of us meeting our goals (Donohoe & Kolt).
Maslow understood needs as motivations which move us into action in order to meet these needs. Anger can be experienced in reaction to interference with the meeting of any of these needs but most commonly in relation to security, freedom and self-esteem. Anger can be understood as an impulse to protection or assertion of one’s needs. Anger therefore is an instinctive response when our identity, self- image or treasured values are under threat or attack.
Emotional Hijacking – A Physiological Perspective
Experientially, emotion is felt as a motivation, an internal motion, an impulse to do something. In so far as anger is indicative of unmet needs, it is a natural and valuable impulse to act. When we get angry our body prepares quickly for action. From a physiological perspective, we get a rush of catecholamines, our heart speeds up, blood flows to our hands and muscles which builds up our energy, preparing us to attack or defend, fight or take flight. Anger is usually more associated with the fight option but this impulse to action also may get turned in on ourselves in the form of anxiety, guilt, depression etc., if expression or extroverted action threatens our survival on an ongoing basis.
It is important to understand the physiological dimension of the anger experience so we do not become confused or overtaken by its ferocity or distortion. To simplify for the purposes of illustration – there appear to be two centres of choice in the brain, one rational, the other instinctive or emotional. The rational centre in the neo cortex depends on awareness and reflection while the emotional one is located in the amygdala, the emotional memory of the brain, and triggers a rapid “instinctive” response, before awareness reaches the neo-cortex level for conscious consideration. The latter short-circuiting is described by Goleman as emotional hijacking and is typical of many reactive angry outbursts.
Understanding the physiological dimension of anger is important because it expands our choices and options for handling both anger and conflict. Experiences of anger release adrenaline into the system. These raise the alertness and sensitivity of the system to threat and create a general readiness to take action. When a rush of catecholamines, triggered by the amygdala is released into the system, the readiness for action reaches a peak. It takes some time for the system to calm down and recover normality again, especially if no action is taken to burn up these hormones. The catecholamines recede relatively quickly but the adrenaline induced state takes much longer. So much so. that the adrenaline releases from successive experiences of endangerment are cumulative, heighten susceptibility to further angry reactions and eventually to over-reaction or violence if there is insufficient recovery time in between.
The heightened, almost allergic state of reactivity brought about by the cumulative effect, is central in the common experience of self-perpetuating or runaway conflict. Even more problematic is that much of this happens outside our awareness and conscious control so we need to develop experiential awareness of these physiological dynamics and signals for effective handling of anger. Goleman astutely refers to the phenomenon as “flooding” and it cuts down our capacity for rational reflection and conscious choice. Effective responses to and even prevention of such “flooding” is critical if we are to work constructively with conflict. Counting to ten, for example, is an age old wisdom in this regard, though there are more sophisticated options available.
The amygdala may be main source of rage but the neocortex is more likely to be the source of more calculated angers such as revenge or outrage at unfairness or injustice, so very different strategies will be needed to address these different types of anger.
Anger As Thought Or Belief
Benjamin Franklin said, “Anger is never without a reason but seldom a good one.” I have difficulty believing this statement though I suspect I would agree with the sentiment behind it, especially in a culture where anger and the action to which it gave rise were perceived as synonymous. Thoughtful anger – the high dream, as Mindell (1995) calls it, can be a transformative energy if we can regulate or prevent the emotional hijacking.
Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotive therapy, suggests anger relates to unmet expectations or beliefs. For example, if we have made an arrangement to meet somebody in a certain place and they do not turn up we may experience annoyance, irritation or anger, especially if they have not bothered to inform us that they were not going to turn up or it is part of a regular pattern of lateness. On the other hand we could turn up at the same place without any expectation of meeting someone and there would be no feelings of irritation or anger. The implication here is that if we had not had the expectation we would not have experienced anger. This suggests that we create our own anger by the way we think, i.e. by irrational expectations and beliefs which we hold. (Ellis)
A more complex version of this relates to values or higher needs. Most of us both individually and collectively have high ideals or aspirations about how we would like the world to be or how we think people ought to behave. Mindell calls this our ”high dream” or it may take the form of ethics, moral standards or a set of values to which we aspire and try to live up to. When people, ourselves or others, fail to live up to these we often have an experience of anger, irritation, annoyance. ” They should be…or should do… so and so, etc.” The dream is in conflict with how we or others are behaving.
Such values or norms are often tacit or we may not always be able to clearly articulate what they are, but still react angrily when they are infringed. It is almost as if we experience a personal injury or an insult to our beings because we identify ourselves closely/draw our identity from being affiliated with these values or aspirations. We can often experience the breaching of these high dreams, values or standards as a personal attack and react angrily without quite understanding why. We could be said to be instinctively protecting or bolstering our identity and demanding respect for it.
Knowing our high dreams and respecting those of others can ameliorate and transform our experience of anger and enable us to be more proactive in realising our “high dream.” Maslow called these high dreams meta-motivation and they have been the driving force behind many great social reforms. We are all familiar with King’s “I have a dream….” speech and Geldoff’s anger at the Ethiopian famine resulting in “Band Aid.” In King’s case he like many others was willing to die for such convictions.
In another version of the “thought” perspective, Rosenberg, suggests that anger is in fact a mental picture rather than a true emotion. While this may be debatable (does it have to be either/or?), he suggests that anger inevitably has a mental image or a “should” lurking some where in the background and could therefore be understood as a thought rather than an emotion. This mental image or “should leads us to seeing the other as the source of our anger and often to alienating labelling of the other ( you are a……) and an accompanying failure to take responsibility for our own feelings and needs. He further suggests that it is best it we try to elicit the feelings and the needs underlying such anger “thoughts.” Anger as we have said earlier has an underlying protective function even if the overt form of expression may appear as attack.
What is clear from all of these views is that there is a close connection between thought and emotion as far as anger is concerned. To be more explicit, thought creates emotion and its corresponding physiological or visceral feeling. Emotion surely gives rise to many thoughts, even if after the event.
These views, therefore, emphasise the importance of asking the question “what are you thinking to make yourself angry?” I.e. anger is something which we create in ourselves – we generate our own anger, contrary to the popular notion that somebody or something out there is making me angry. Rosenberg emphasises this in his Non-violent Communication processes through the words “I feel because I…”, or “Did you feel…because you needed…” The feeling statement is usually followed by a statement of what I or you needed that gave rise to the feeling, thus firmly establishing ownership and responsibility for the emotion within oneself . When one says that “I feel because you…” the implication is that the “you” concerned is somehow responsible for the anger. Not only does this use of language deny responsibility for the generation of the feeling, it is also likely to be experienced as an attack by the person to whom it is being addressed, possibly triggering an escalation of the conflict.
Anger As Energy – A Social Or Systemic Perspective
Whether you regard anger as an emotion or as a thought it certainly has a physiological and feeling dimension as mentioned above. Weeks, in common with many others, regards it as just energy which can be channelled as assertion or self expression and as such it is of value to the individual and the collective as a sort of re-balancing energy. Indeed conflict itself can be seen as a re-balancing phenomenon especially when viewed from a social or interpersonal perspective (De Mare, Mindell, Coser, Donohoe and Kolt).
From this perspective, anger is likely to be experienced more often by the socially excluded, the marginalised, the oppressed and those with lower power in relationships, so we need to be careful lest we pathologise anger and its expression. Anger and its expression are often regarded by psychologists, the general public and the powers of the establishment as abnormal, immature or unacceptable especially if it is consistently disturbing, disruptive. The marginalised, the excluded and those of low-power will inevitably be regarded as disturbing or threatening to the status quo because they will want to change things. We need to be aware that such anger may need to take socially unacceptable forms of expression unless the underlying needs are listened to. Repressed anger can take the form of revenge or terrorism if ignored or suppressed.
Anger whether personal or social is certainly a wake-up call to the mainstream, the privileged and the high-powered and is best treated as such. It is an energy to be channelled and harnessed and can be used for destructive or constructive purposes - the choice is ours both individually and collectively. At a social and organisational level, Senge, Pascale, Bohm and others have demonstrated how conflict can be used as a fuel for positive transformation. Anger if nothing else is a clear sign of conflict. However, let us also not forget that not all anger is recognisable in extroverted forms of expression. Introverted expression such as depression, guilt, shame and their expression in substance abuse, self-abuse or internal self-destruction may also be indicative of the need for change.
Applications In Conflict
The implications for practice of these different perspectives is enormous and we have only begun to understand how to apply them. Depending on which understanding you wish to adopt, and I believe all are relevant and necessary depending on the situation, different courses of action and behaviour might be recommended. What is emphasised in most models is that we need to develop the emotional competence to be aware of, own and manage our emotional responses rather than simply acting them out. Awareness of how we create our anger, how we sustain, escalate it or defuse it, how we discern our underlying needs, and intentionally choosing how we act in response to it, will serve us in good stead especially during conflict.
Conflict likewise can be understood in a variety of different ways. In recent years conflict is often associated with violence, abnormality and being asocial or anti- social. More recent understandings of conflict tend to emphasise difference and diversity and see conflict as a natural, inevitable and even necessary and valuable phenomenon, given the tendency to value diversity and pluralism. Conflict in this latter understanding sees conflict as tension and dissonance between parties, positions, views and so on. Violence is not seen as an inevitable consequence or accompaniment of conflict though clearly a possibility. Conflict is seen as inevitably disturbing but also as an opportunity for learning, growth and transformation. This understanding of conflict (Coser 1956, Mindell, Crum) is critical to the positive reframing of both conflict and anger.
In recent years, concern among politicians and social scientists about harmony and cohesion in society has tended to dominate thinking about conflict. Peace and harmony tended to be portrayed as the norm and anything which deviated from this togetherness was viewed as abnormal. This is a far cry from the views of early social scientists who viewed difference and the accompanying conflict as a sign of a healthy and a self renewing society. The concern with the cohesion of the community, whether nation or state, has lead to a minimising of differences, a blurring of boundaries and an avoidance of polarisation or conflict. Compromise, marginalisation, suppression of differences and even exclusion both overt and covert have left many feeling a loss of identity, hopelessness, apathy, depression, anger and alienation from mainstream society. Failure to work through conflicts arising out of natural differences often means that such conflict is recycled in various forms of oppression and retaliation, escalation and de-escalation and often punctuated by sporadic outbursts of aggression or violence.
Without trying to minimise the destructive potential of conflict – we know that conflict, particularly protracted conflict, becomes self-perpetuating – we need to explore the transformative potential of conflict. Most of our natural instincts and social upbringing tend to militate against such a stance and so the baby of opportunity afforded by conflict is dumped with the bath water of emotion – hurt, anger, fear, confusion and so on.
Most of us experience conflict as a crisis – major or minor. Oriental philosophies teach us the importance of seizing the opportunity while avoiding the danger in crisis situations. Taking flight from the danger as many of us often do often results in us missing the opportunity. Equally getting locked into tunnel vision either fixated on the threat by fear or consumed by anger in the face of the threat so often experienced in a conflict scenario will surely cause us to miss the opportunity. Conflict can provide the fuel for transformation but only if we remain aware, balanced and poised to take advantage of the opportunity.
I tend to favour approaches which emphasise learning and transformation through conflict, though conflict resolution and reconciliation are also dependent on how we handle our anger. As a way of concluding I will focus on a few of the insights from the above theoretical perspectives which are relevant to handling anger in conflict situations.
It has been said more than once that a ten year old child could resolve most conflicts if the problem were just difference over substantive issues of facts, interests, goals and so on. However, we all know most protracted conflicts have deep seated emotional value and identity dimensions to them which displace the substantive issues as the focus of attention and are less amenable to resolution. In conflict resolution and reconciliation processes the early stages are concerned with rebuilding contact which has been limited or broken off during the conflict and engaging in activity which is of mutual benefit to parties involved. However, sooner, or preferably later, parties have to deal with the conflictual issues which separate them. Eventually they need to transform the generative field which gives rise to or continually recapitulates or sustains the conflict – usually the most complex but essential element if sustainable and just peace is to be achieved. Resolving the substantive issues becomes an easy task at this point.
Raising conflictual issues is fraught with difficulty especially if there has been silence, denial and fear of the consequences of raising the divisive issues. More heat than light can be generated. Conflict can escalate, the stakes raised and matters made worse if there are limited communication skills or time to work issues through. How we handle anger in raising conflictual issues will be a major determinant of success.
Endangerment is a common experience in most conflict scenarios. When in conflict most of us experience a threat of some kind whether it is to our material- physical or psychological well being (e.g. self-esteem, identity or rights). Anger and fear are the most typical emotional responses to threat or endangerment and tend to trigger fight, flight or “play dead” responses depending on the magnitude of the perceived threat and the extent of one’s perceived capacity to deal with it. Whether the response is anger or fear, the tendency is to fixate attention on the source of the threat and this tends to narrow our perspective on the situation and we fail to see or explore the range of options for resolution of the conflict. We tend to focus on removing the threat rather than dealing with the substantive issues.
Provoking And Responding to Anger
When raising conflictual issues, therefore, there are two key communication challenges, one being to avoid threatening the identity, needs, rights and values of the other party and the second being to manage and regulate our response when we encounter experiences of endangerment and threat. Both are critical to the escalation and de-escalation of conflict and both are prone to the triggering emotional hijack or flooding in one or other party to the conflict.
To avoid such threats we need to be aware of how the other identifies themselves and be conscious of words or actions which endanger then identity. Respect of the other depends on consciousness of such identity and they may not even be conscious of it themselves, so it often needs to be a learning process for both sides. The same is true for needs, rights, and values. If we encounter anger in the course of raising conflictual issues, it should trigger such an identity inquiry before proceeding with the substantive issues.
Attribution is one of the main ways we escalate conflict and provoke an angry response. Typi cally we tend to attribute the blocking of our needs and goals to the other, often blaming, judging or labelling the other for our failure to achieve our goals or meet our needs (what Rosenberg calls Jackal language). This labelling judgement or accusation is more often than not experienced as a threat or an attack by the other party on their rights, needs or values, provoking a defensive or angry response. By focusing on expressing our feelings and needs we avoid the implicit attack in Jackal language and by eliciting the other’s feelings and needs we respect and honour their core identity and values.
Escalating anger, as mentioned above, is a series of sequential provocations which trigger increasing levels of excitation, each building on the one that went before and which recede or dissipate slowly. Later thoughts in the build-up trigger more intense anger, reason tends to get blocked out and there is little consideration of consequences. Such build-up can culminate in rage and set loose feelings of rage which have been displaced or transferred from other events and experiences even unconnected to the current parties to the conflict at hand. Being consumed by bitterness and obsession with anger triggering incident makes it impossible to focus on the issues and listen to the other and is a prime contributor to runaway or self-perpetuating conflict.
Rage is the mood/emotion we are least able to control (Tavris). A righteous inner monologue propels us along with convincing arguments for venting it. Rage is exhilarating and exciting. Some believe it is uncontrollable or should not be controlled. Brooding, stoking, anger driven by harsh judgements and images of what the other, is, did. ought to he doing, or is not doing, fuel the flames. Angry defence, self-justification, and personalised attack on the traits of the other party do little but escalate the conflict.
The key to de-escalation and control is often to reverse the steps which escalate. Reframing the situation or context in a more positive light undermines the self justification and convictions that are fueling the anger and thereby defuses it. For example, giving more weight to contextual explanations for events than to trait explanations lessens the need for either blaming or self justification. Also, allowing the situation, misunderstanding, miscommunication, and so on, rather than the person of the opposing party, bear the brunt of responsibility or blame is less threatening to the identity and needs of the other. Such mitigating information is more forgiving – gives the benefit of the doubt, and is an aid to reappraisal of anger provoking events.
High levels of rage lead to cognitive incapacitation, so short cutting the build-up of rage is important in interpersonal relations – the earlier in the build-up the better. Empathy and compassion are the great antidotes to anger and rage. However, the empathy often has to be with oneself first, contrary to popular belief. Empathising with one’s own “Jackal” and discerning underlying needs is likely to be a healing experience. Taking a substantial break after the catecholamine rush and the adrenaline build-up avoids the hair trigger reaction of the hijack. Positive self-talk to build up one’s self-esteem or face-saving/bolstering communication which validates the identity of the other lessens the likelihood or the destructive impact of an anger attack. Expression or release of rage is best done in a supported and facilitated environment if it is to have a healing and therapeutic effect.
Venting of anger is often justified on the basis that doing so can change the other person from their ways or provides a certain amount of cathartic or therapeutic release. This may be so when vented to the right person in the right place and at the right time. It may change their behaviour or right an injustice, but it is also dangerous because it can get out of control and you cannot predict the response you might get. It is easier said than done because of the incendiary nature of anger. Venting anger directly at someone else is probably one of the worst ways to cool down even if it does bring temporary relief. “Don’t suppress anger but don’t act on it; cool down first then assert, confront, settle” is probably good advice.
The Generative Field Of Anger
Using a broad sociological perspective, it is useful to explore how anger and conflict is regenerated time and time again like self-igniting birthday candles. Both with communities and personal relationships the same issues seem to come up again and again if we only focus on the substantive issues – the presenting issues in the conflict. To help us dig a bit deeper it is useful to assume a generative field which gives rise anger and conflict and that it is the field itself which needs to be resolved or transformed if we are to draw the recycling or recapitulation to a close. I refer here to issues such as power, dependence, structure and culture to illustrate the concept of generative field.
Core to understanding conflict is the notion of dependence, i.e. how people are connected socially. People who are in conflict with one another are dependent on one another or, at least one party perceives themselves to be so on the other. Conflict requires, promotes and maintains dependence/interdependence as long as it goes on. At least one of the parties believes “I can get what I want through you.” Or, “I cannot get what I want without you.” When people enter a conflict, or have the potential for conflict, they assume they have the ability to affect one another’s thoughts and or behaviours and try to do so. Such dependency sets the scene for one or both parties to experience interference or impedance by the other party in their efforts to achieve their own goals. Anger is likely to be triggered by such perceptions and/or dependency when expectations are not met. Learning to balance dependence and independence is essential to good anger and conflict management.
Another source of conflict and a complication in any attempts to resolve it is what Mindell calls rank and privilege and what others have called asymmetric power balance. Those with rank or high power tend to control more resources, the agenda, the style of communication, and so on and tend to impose them on those of lower rank or power. Power imbalance or rank creates conflict and provokes anger because those with higher rank are often unaware of their oppressive use of their rank or power, can act with impunity in a way which impedes or interferes with the needs of others and often ignore, marginalise or exclude those with lower power or rank. Often those in high power or rank are unaware of the privilege which comes with their position and often abuse it provoking anger, revenge and retaliation from the excluded or marginalised.
Greater consciousness and acknowledgement of rank and privilege (social, psychological, spiritual, material etc.) and its impact and or a rebalancing of power between parties is needed if anger and conflict is not to be recycled or continually recapitulated. Such consciousness or power re-balancing may need to result in structural changes or even termination of relationships if the generative field of anger and conflict is to be transformed. Reconciliation and the building of sustainable relationships may require a reconstruction of the basis for relationship and the social and cultural norms which gave rise to the marginalisation or exclusion.
The above are a range of concepts and practices which could enhance the way we handle anger and conflict. It is clear that many of our mindsets and cultural norms around anger and conflict will need to be decommissioned and some new understandings developed if we are to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities. As a race we are capable of extraordinary achievements from space travel to genetic engineering, but we continue to risk the destruction of all our advances by our relative lack of attention to and inability to resolve our differences and conflicts.
We need to learn to wage conflict constructively – to have healthy disagreements/ conflicts and to promote diversity. To do this we need to develop emotion, literacy and in particular how to handle our anger and make it into a resource rather than a liability. This will entail some considerable innerwork – how to manage need to be loved, valued, respected, our fears of abandonment, attack, deprivation, and so on. It will also entail the harnessing of such anger in the service change and transformation through the development of the appropriate skills and competence.
John Mulligan is Director of Breakthrough Consultancy based in Ashtown, Roundwood Co.Wicklow. Breakthrough specialises in facilitation and training in conflict and reconciliation work with couples, organisations and communities. Formerly Director of the Human Potential Research Project at Surrey University in the UK., he is currently researching the growth and transformational potential of conflict. He welcomes comments and responses to the paper and opportuities to carry out innovative projects and consultancy in this field.
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