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Empathy and Anger Management

"It's easy to become self-centered when you start getting angry about something. Actually, "self-absorbed" might be a better word." Dr. Ron Potter-Efron

Empathy is split into cognitive (perspective taking) and emotional reactions. Our behaviors are guided by our thoughts and emotions. Therefore, it's pertinent to accurately apply empathy to be cognitively and emotionally measured when settling disputes. The absence of empathy in conflicts can lead to aggressive behaviors. So let us explore using empathy as an anger management strategy.

Showing empathy is not the same as feeling sorry for someone. Empathy can foster personal growth in several areas of our lives, and anger management is one of those areas. The accurate expression of empathy assists in understanding the subjective nature of other people's emotions.

Why should I care about someone else's feelings? This is an excellent question. The answer to the question is possibly twofold: 1) you will become less defensive if you understand the subjective nature of the other person's anger. 2) It makes it easier to move forward once you have completed perspective-taking.

Humanistic Psychologist Carl Rogers' work, underscores the value of empathy in human relations. Rogers' idea of unconditional positive regard and accurate empathic understanding speaks to humility and open-mindedness when interacting with others. Fundamental empathic understanding is a skill that supports prosocial behaviors that can be useful when dealing with a conflict. For example, Marshall and colleagues 1995 surveyed the available research literature on empathy and proposed a four-stage model of empathy. The model presented here was adapted from a published Marshall and Marshall 2011 article on empathy and antisocial behaviors.

Stage 1: recognition of other's emotional state

Stage 2: able to see things from other's perspective

Step 3: Emotional or compassionate response

Stage 4: take steps to ameliorate other's distress

The model is succinct and can serve as a guidepost for anger management. Although, the model encourages perspective-taking based on the other person's behaviors. Applying the model to anger management is not a one-sided approach or a suggestion to ignore your feelings or the tension associated with the anger-provoking situation. Instead, seek to understand the other person so you can adequately respond to them and hopefully de-escalate the situation and protect your interests.

The content herein is not to imply that showing empathy fixes a problem. Instead, it is to highlight that arguing without an accurate understanding of the root cause of the conflict will render any attempt to resolve the dispute futile. In addition, your use of empathy may not influence the other person's behavior.

Further, using empathy will clear up any ambiguity about the conflict. For instance, when you disagree with a person that uses vague and non-specific language to describe their need. See it as an opportunity to seek clarity instead of reacting with passive-aggressive behaviors.

The clarity you seek can be achieved by:

  • knowing what the disagreement is about

  • Recognize what you want and what the other person wants from you. I did not use the word expectation because expectations can be unreasonable.

  • Give consideration to what the other person is feeling.

  • What's important to you and the other person to arrive at a compromise.

  • Be sure to seek the person's perspective without speculating about what is needed from you.

No stress if anger has escalated to the point where the opportunity to obtain clarity is temporarily lost. When the involved parties are calm and able to communicate rationally, there is still an opening to seek a resolution. The notion here is the appropriate application of empathy can potentially reduce the incidence of anger escalation or allow for the constructive expression of anger. The capacity to show compassion supports cognitive and emotional regulation in anger-provoking situations.

Stay Naturally Curious


L.E. Marshall & W.L. Marshall (2011): Empathy and antisocial behaviour, Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 22:5, 742-759.

Potter-Efron, R. (2001). Stop the anger now. A workbook for the prevention, containment, and resolution of anger. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Turan, M. E. (2021). Empathy and Video Game Addiction in Adolescents: Serial Mediation by Psychological Resilience and Life Satisfaction. International Journal of Progressive Education, 17(4), 282-296.


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