Are You Mad at Me?

If you are at work, or in a serious relationship, odds are you’ve wondered if your friend, co-worker, or significant other is upset and not telling you. Often, you’ll ask the question, and get a “no, I’m fine,” type of response that you refuse to believe. Since our actions speak louder than words, if the other person’s body language is not convincing, we’ll sit and worry about it endlessly.

This serves no one, but it is totally natural as a response. Our brains lock onto contrasting stimuli, so we tend to stress over any change in behaviors, and since we are all the heroes of our own story, often, we immediately assume that we are the cause of the behavior.

This can put the other person in a difficult position. You’ve asked a Yes or No question, so if they are not “angry” with you, but are a little annoyed, or if they are upset at something else, you are not going to get a good answer. And if they are angry with you, asking straight out like this can be perceived as a confrontational, something we are often taught to avoid.

So, how can you get an answer? One technique that I teach in my classes is called a perception check. At first, it can sound very robotic, but if you work it into your own conversational style, it can really help you avoid jumping to conclusions! This technique is great if you’ve noticed someone’s behavior abruptly change because it removes our tendency to jump to conclusions, and gives the person the chance to either save face, or tell you what’s going on. In a conflict situation, saving face is everything. The more “shame” a person feels, the longer the conflict will last as both parties work to protect their sense of self. A perception check statement has three parts:

  1. A statement of the behavior you’ve noticed: “Hey, it feels like you’ve been avoiding me in the lunch room lately…. OR, “I waited up for you so we could play Halo like normal, but you went up to bed as soon as we finished dinner.” You want to phrase your statement in a way that does not include a judgement. Just describe it.
  2. Two possible interpretations: “I didn’t know if I said something to upset you, or if you were just needing some time to yourself?” Or “It seemed like you were upset, and I thought it was something I said, or maybe something going on at work?” You can phrase your questions to include a way for them to save face if you like. It’s good when dealing with co-workers especially.
  3. Ask them to clarify: “I’m worried about you, what’s up?” OR “Is there something that you want to talk about?”

This method can be adjusted, but I use it regularly with both my family and my students, and it really seems to help avoid conflicts. Also, realize, sometimes people need time to process. Go into any exchange with an altruistic intent, and if they respond negatively, don’t assume it’s you…give it time and try again.

If they choose to tell you, remember to stay open and listen honestly, if you start feeling defensive, try to fight the urge to argue and be open-if you shut them down, they won’t be open to sharing with you in the future.

I wish you happy and fruitful conversations!