Brains are surprisingly good at inventing reasons for being angry, even if the original reason has gone away and the only real remaining cause is the adrenaline in the bloodstream. It can be physically impossible to let go of anger until your body has settled down. The rate at which your body returns to its baseline non-angry state varies from person to person. Being in this state of reinforced physical anger is what we call the William James zone, and how long it takes you to get out of that zone is your “William James threshold.” The philosopher William James predicted this effect long before the science of biology was able to confirm it,1 which is why we named this effect after him. The stereotype is that women take longer to cool down from anger than men do, but every person’s William James threshold will depend on circumstance, upbringing, mood, and multiple other factors. It’s best to avoid making assumptions and instead learn to deal with people as individuals.
All of this is useful to know, but what does it have to do with communication and problem solving? The answer is this: if you’re aware of the difference between emotional anger and physical anger, some situations become much easier to handle. For instance, if you know that the person with whom you’re communicating has a long William James threshold, when they get angry you can ask for some time to cool down before continuing the conversation. It might be helpful to take a break, to go outside for a few minutes and take a walk, or to be in separate rooms for a while. If anyone involved in the conflict is experiencing physical anger, it will be especially difficult to communicate successfully. This is why it’s often better to wait it out. Cool-down time is a good thing to negotiate before anyone gets upset so that you can ask for it in the moment in a way that won’t cause tempers to flare up even higher.
Being aware of the William James zone can also help you be more understanding of other people’s anger. If you realize that your partner is angry because of something going on in their body rather than because of anything you did, it can help put their angry outburst into perspective. A deeper understanding of what’s actually going on allows you to react with more compassion.
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