What Solmonese reveals in this book is that for him, the key to success was learning to harness his anger. Essentially it’s just a form of energy. Channeled, it can keep you moving forward on a long journey. But uncontrolled, it can blow everything up.
With this as his guiding principle, Solmonese uses stories from his work with HRC and his previous position as CEO of the powerful women’s organization EMILY’s List to share a series of often-surprising lessons. For example, empathize with your enemies instead of shaming them, find allies wherever you can, and ask for the doable, not the impossible (even when the “impossible” is your ultimate goal). Most striking in this book are the stories of Solmonese’s ability to draw some kind of win—however small—from seeming adversaries.
But at every step of the way he emphasizes the importance of managing the yin-yang tension of anger. Particularly when one is dealing with irrational and offensive attitudes, the temptation is ever present to give in to righteous indignation. While it’s fine to feel it, Solmonese’s advice is to always be strategic with your outrage.
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About the Author
Judy Shepard is the President of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and was instrumental in passing the anti-hate crime bill, The Matthew Shepard Act.
Read an Excerpt
The Gift of Anger
Use Passion to Build Not Destroy
By Joe Solmonese
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Joe Solmonese
All rights reserved.
CHANNELING ANGER INTO ACTION
These days the world seems to be an angrier place than it used to be. Let's face it: we're stretched in a million different directions, yet the world is getting smaller, more interconnected, and our relationships are rapidly changing. We used to compete against the business across the hall or across the country; now we must think about a global economy. Social media has provided a platform for anyone to express anything and everything they want and, democratically speaking, that's a good thing. Yet the sheer volume of it, the unfiltered nature of the content, and the anonymity available on these platforms create echo chambers for anger and hurtfulness to be exacerbated. This stress can generate an emotional reaction, and sometimes we choose anger over other emotions so that we don't appear vulnerable. We often use anger as a defense mechanism to get us through life's daily battles. As we're getting angrier, however, we can become less able to work together — to create social change or just to get along in the office. This anger can close us off from one another.
OUR ANGER PROBLEM
Anger, rage, fury — whatever you want to call it — is an emotion inherent in all people. Like other human emotions, we have the capacity for anger for good reason. Sometimes, it's okay to be furious. When you're confronted with a truly frustrating reality, the most useful thing you can do is to figure out how to use that anger: do you suppress it or find a way to use it to your advantage? Anger is something that you sense, that you legitimately and justifiably experience in the face of injustice and in moments when anger is called for. There are moments throughout U.S. history when righteous fury has been the source for creating positive, necessary, and strategic social change: Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Gloria Steinem and the fight for women's rights, the Stonewall riots and the struggle for LGBT equality. In all of these instances, constructive anger has been used as the fuel to build, not destroy.
The key is to understand in ourselves and in our communities when anger can be a productive resource or a destructive one. If you want to make change happen, use your anger as a gift, not a curse. Take the 2016 presidential election cycle, one filled with very different characters, from very different backgrounds, on opposite ends of the political spectrum who tapped into Americans' collective anger. They acknowledged it and fed it back to people in a way that served only to elevate and amplify the anger. The three prevailing voices in the 2016 presidential election cycle (that of Senator Bernie Sanders, real estate mogul Donald Trump, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) addressed what each candidate perceived as voter anger. Throughout their campaigns, their messages reflected back the cause of Americans' anger, what each candidate believed voters were feeling.
Senator Sanders took the mantle of the Occupy movement and engaged voters with his message that a tiny wealthy minority has all the power, that the economy is rigged, that it's stacked against most Americans. He created a have-and-have-not dynamic, where his scapegoat was Wall Street, wealth, and high-income earners. Sanders gave validation to the have-nots for their anger at the haves. And while the anger and the sentiment he reflected was certainly warranted, he was never able to channel that rage toward a pragmatic or believable outcome. His own anger left doubts in the minds of too many voters about his ability to work as president in a collaborative way across party lines toward any solutions that had the possibility of becoming reality.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, did throughout his campaign what the United States has seen historically and politically in times of economic uncertainty. He tapped into the well of rage from America's working middle class, particularly white men who feel that life is unfair. Trump introduced something that is foreign to them (the "other" — in Trump's case, immigrants), something unknown that gives them someone to blame. He reflected a more dangerous point of view: You're angry because life hasn't worked out the way you thought it would. The country doesn't look the way it used to. It's being overrun by immigrants who are taking your jobs, bringing the economy to its knees, and threatening your personal safety.
Where Trump and Sanders are similar is that they recognized this well of anger throughout America; they mirrored something cathartic, a message that made people feel validated. In Trump's case, his message made them scared; in Sanders's case, it made them hopeful. Yet in both cases, the candidates' messages did not really do anything except regurgitate anger for the sake of anger.
The third point of view, which gets to the crux of this book, is that of Hillary Clinton — the only presidential candidate who channeled Americans' collective anger toward a realistic outcome. Throughout her campaign, she showed that she understands people are angry about injustice, but instead of reflecting that frustration back to Americans, she channeled the anger and used it to create a platform that provided people with a hopeful future. She gave them a sense of confidence that they can get to a better place. The outcome of the 2016 election will depend on whether voters are able to channel their anger and choose a candidate who works for them or are blinded by their anger and choose a candidate who works against them. The successful candidate is almost always one who is able to see that anger (passion) is a gift that can be channeled toward a greater good (creating positive change).
TURNING ANGER AROUND
Instead of shutting things down, however, anger can be used in another way. It can be the energy source that propels us to overcome systemic social injustice or the fuel that helps us to get what we want in a personal or professional situation. Processing anger and channeling it toward a positive outcome is a multistep process. The first step involves determining whether anger is even an appropriate response to something. If it is not valid, then you will learn what the appropriate sentiment, and course of action, should be. For example, if we demand that our legislative leaders take immediate action on an issue that is really important to us, but we hear that Congress won't be back in session for several weeks, that response — and that delay — is hardly a reason to burn down the buildings.
But if your anger is justified, the next step is to determine whether to express that anger and, ultimately, to what extent and how. When pressing for social change, you regularly meet resistance, which almost always results in justifiable anger. Your path forward depends on channeling that frustration and figuring out how to use it to get the outcome you want. In interpersonal relationships as well as in professional settings, there are many examples where anger is not a valid response. In these situations, it is best to consciously restrain your emotional reaction. Once you've stepped back a bit and taken anger out of the equation, and had an honest conversation with yourself and perhaps with your allies, you will realize that the decision you make about what to do with your passion will be the right one.
The key to navigating through anger and your initial emotional response to resistance or adversity is to be honest with yourself. If you can't do that, find people around you who can help. For instance, if you asked your boss for a raise, and she responded that she'd been meaning to talk with you about your poor performance, you might react to her criticism with defensive anger. You may feel that you and your boss are far apart in terms of evaluating your work. But who is right? If she is, then your anger toward her is misplaced. If you can't be honest with yourself and get past that anger, you're not going to chart a productive course forward. Sometimes trusted friends and coworkers can help you understand how you're viewed at work, so you can figure out how to move in a positive direction. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you've done the work and determined that your anger is justified, you still have to learn how to channel that frustration toward a positive outcome. Whether it's finding common ground, overcoming differences, or being able to listen strategically without the haze of anger filtering what you hear, we all have the potential to change any situation into a win. That's what this book is all about.
* * *
On April 29, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA). The passing of the HCPA meant that thereafter the category of "hate crime" would cover not only crimes in which a victim's race, color, religion, or national origin were a factor but also those relating to a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. For the first time, gay and transgender individuals would have the same legal protections as everyone else.
In this case, protection for all came at someone else's tragic expense. Eleven years earlier, in 1998, two horrific hate crimes had been committed. Matthew Shepard, a young man living in Laramie, Wyoming, was tortured and killed simply because he was gay. James Byrd, an African American man, was singled out, tied to the back of a truck, and dragged to his death. I had the privilege of sitting in the congressional gallery alongside Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, as the House of Representatives passed this landmark piece of legislation. She, along with her husband, Dennis Shepard, had spent the past ten years advocating, lobbying, and speaking out on behalf of this legislation that would give local law enforcement agencies throughout the country the tools they needed to more effectively investigate and prosecute hate-based crimes.
No one had been more courageous or committed to seeing this bill become law than Dennis and Judy. With their justifiable rage, through their grief, they saw that the perpetrators who had murdered their son went to jail for life. Then they took the next step and channeled their anger into action to create lasting social and legislative change. Judy wanted to ensure that no other American family would ever experience the pain and suffering hers had. They started the Matthew Shepard Foundation to replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance. Working directly with the Human Rights Campaign, they toiled to get a federal hate crimes bill passed into law. The Shepards walked the halls of Congress for ten years trying to garner support and change the hearts and minds of legislators. Beginning in 2005, I stood with them. We worked together closely, and it was a true honor to be with Judy on the day we realized we had the votes to pass the bill through both the House and the Senate. President Obama, who had worked alongside us for the bill's passage, was committed to sign it into law.
Before there can be a vote on any piece of legislation in either the House or the Senate, all sides (proponents and opponents) are given time to debate their various points of view. On that April day we sat through an entire morning of floor debate in the House. Although we had heard some misguided resistance to this bill over the years, most of the speeches that day were supportive. In their remarks many members of Congress paid tribute to Judy and her tireless work. I distinctly remember civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis commenting on Judy's steadfast dedication. Eventually Congresswoman Virginia Foxx of North Carolina chose to speak, in opposition of the bill. The fact that Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay, Foxx said, was simply a hoax. Everyone knew, she went on, that Matthew was the unfortunate victim of a robbery. Those of us seeking to pass hate crimes legislation, she explained, continued to perpetrate this hoax simply to gain support for the bill. She rambled on about how nothing that had been reported about the incident was actually true.
As I processed Foxx's hateful words, I was in complete shock. All of her claims were categorically false. I don't know if it was the adrenaline from the emotional roller coaster we all had been on leading up to this moment, but Foxx's comments enraged me like nothing had ever upset me before. Shaking, I turned to Judy. I thought we should put out a statement refuting Foxx's comments and get other members of Congress to immediately take to the floor and do the same thing. I was rising out of my seat with anger when Judy put her hand on mine. Quietly but firmly, she spoke: "This discussion isn't even happening. What's happening right now is that we are on our way, after eleven years, to winning. That's what is happening. Let's not let our anger or our emotions get in the way of our true goal. Our job is to see this bill through to victory."
Judy was right, of course. We had the votes we needed. Once the clock on the floor debates ran out, the bill would pass no matter what lies Virginia Foxx spewed. Our message in response would be to shine a light on the supporters of the bill. We would not give one more minute of airtime to the bigoted and misguided rhetoric of Virginia Foxx. She took her seat and was followed by Sheila Jackson Lee, a congresswoman from Houston and a civil rights pioneer. I expected that Congresswoman Lee would counter Foxx's argument, but she didn't even acknowledge it. Instead, she placed both Matthew and James Byrd as great civil rights pioneers in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin. Like Judy, she channeled her anger over Foxx's vitriol into something positive. Her uplifting speech made all the people in the gallery forget about Foxx entirely. As we predicted, the bill passed in the House with a final vote of 249–175. The Senate went on to pass the bill in the fall, and on October 28, President Obama signed the HCPA into law. I was there. He commented to all of those attending that he had promised Judy and Dennis Shepard this day would come.
I recently spoke to Judy about our experience of getting HCPA passed. I thanked her for the lessons she taught me and told her how much I admired her grace during some very challenging moments. She reminded me that her grace and inner will didn't always come to her so easily. In the early days, just after Matthew's death, when she began visiting members of Congress and lobbying them, she was often overwhelmed and felt defeated by the intolerance and ignorance that some displayed when discussing hate crimes legislation. She wondered aloud to members of HRC's legislative staff whether she was cut out for the daunting task of garnering support for the bill. She often heard offensive and maddening comments. These conversations frequently brought out some of the worst vestiges of antigay sentiment. However, with the help of such brave allies in Congress as Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Gordon Smith of Oregon, Judy was able to channel her anger into action. She never lost sight of her goal.
When we won and the bill was passed, Virginia Foxx's chief of staff called me. "Look, Joe," he said. "My boss wants to find a way to apologize to Judy Shepard. How can she reach her?" I called Judy and her response was clear. "To me, she doesn't exist," Judy explained. "Those statements don't exist. None of that exists. I will not be talking to Virginia Foxx. What will remain in people's memory is Sheila Jackson Lee's speech and President Obama's remarks as he signed the act into law. Those events are all that exist." I realized that Judy Shepard and Sheila Jackson Lee were wiser than me; they knew how to channel their anger and keep their eye on the bigger prize, the signing of the HCPA. While both women were smart and strategic, it didn't mean that they weren't filled with anger, even in that circumstance.
This was the moment when I understood that the emotion of anger is a reality in all of our lives, and it has the potential to be a great gift. Anger was the primary emotion Judy had been carrying for over a decade, yet it had become a source of energy that kept her moving forward. For Congresswoman Lee, anger was like an adrenaline force, compelling her to be nimble and fast on her feet as she spoke so eloquently off the cuff. She never addressed Virginia Foxx; rather, she spoke above and around Foxx to get her point across. She channeled her fury toward attaining a positive outcome.
Excerpted from The Gift of Anger by Joe Solmonese. Copyright © 2016 Joe Solmonese. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Judy Shepard vii
1 Channeling Anger into Action 17
2 Finding Common Ground 43
3 Listening Mindfully 68
4 Overcoming Differences 91
5 How to Ask for Anything… and Get It 107
6 The Sheer Will Strategy 128
7 Sacrifice versus Compromise 148
8 Working Together toward Hope 166
About the Author 189