Have you ever been in a conversation that seems to spiral out of control no matter how hard you try to keep yourself and others calm?
When whatever you say seems to make everything worse? Of course you have! Everyone has experienced this particular demoralizing part of being human.
Some of us try to avoid such toxic interactions by staying silent and stuffing down our emotions. Others march right into verbal—or even physical—battle where we get a chance to release all the emotional energy we believe we have no other way to express.
Either approach is our problematic attempt to manage the vast ocean of our emotional life which lies under the thin veneer of our “rational” mind.
This kind of emotionality isn’t just born from hostile debates, but any time someone is triggered. If we’re trying to talk to a shut-down teen, or someone deep in the grip suicidal ideation, anxiety, grief, or depression, we often find we can’t communicate effectively. In these cases, we want desperately to connect but find ourselves at a loss and may say nothing, or the wrong thing—leaving the person in crisis isolated, alone, and possibly in danger.
We can get lost in our own anxiety about our inability to help, creating an even wider gap between ourselves and the person in pain. Instead of being brave companions to those in need, we become avoidant, trapped by our own insecurities.
But we needn’t. In his book De-escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less, Douglas Noll outlines a straight-forward technique to manage all of these situations. Backed by years of research and the amazing results he continues to get from his Prison of Peace project; a program to help violent offenders manage conflict during their incarcerations, his method does indeed take 90 seconds or less. I know, because I use it daily in my psychotherapeutic practice and I have found it to be too remarkable not to share.
Neurologically, when we experience primal emotions like fear, anger, and shame, they begin in the amygdala, or what is sometimes called the lizard brain. This is the first part of our brain to develop as children and the closest to our primitive forebears. It deals only in emotion: logical or rational thought does not exist there, just instinct. A kid having a temper tantrum about his toast being buttered incorrectly is firmly lodged in his lizard brain. As much as we like to believe that, as we age, we leave these tantrums behind, none of us really do. We just learn to express them differently, and about a more serious range of things other than toast.
As we all know, it is useless to argue with a screaming three-year-old, and it is just as useless to try and reason with an adult who is trapped in his three-year-old lizard brain. But, unlike the three-year-old, we can help an adult move out of his primitive core and up into his prefrontal cortex by doing some difficult, but relatively simple, things.
When my son took his life in 2004 at 16, I knew he had already been suffering for a long time. I ache to remember the talks I tried to have with him, frantic to reach that wounded place in his heart. Because he was an outwardly happy person—joking, warm, and friendly—lots of people were shocked by his suicide. While I wasn’t exactly expecting it, shock isn’t what I felt. Instead, it was more of a dull recognition that this was the result of my final failure.
While that isn’t, in retrospect, entirely true—it wasn’t just my failure, but the madness of complex depression in a young undeveloped mind that took him—I could have done so much better. I cringe in particular when I recall a conversation with him about his sadness and ended up only talking about mine. I told him truthfully that I had thought of suicide at his age hoping to help him feel less alone. All I really did was take the focus off of his feelings and put them somewhere safer—my own—further alienating and confusing him.
What could I have done instead? I could have helped him up out of his lizard brain by naming his emotions for him, effectively loaning him my own prefrontal cortex so he could feel some relief. It is literally as simple as being brave enough to pay attention to the emotion somebody else is feeling and saying it out loud.
It would have sounded something like this:
My son sitting in his room, silent but weeping uncontrollably.
Me: You are sad.
My son continues to cry.
Me: You are in terrible pain.
My son, whispering: I don’t want to be here anymore. I can’t do this.
Me: You are sad because you are overwhelmed and don’t want to be here anymore. You feel like you can’t do this.
My son: I can’t!
Me: You are hopeless and scared.
My son quiets slightly.
Me: You feel alone and hopeless and scared.
My son: Yes!
“Well,” you might be thinking, “that would be great if it actually worked, but a) it sounds pretty awkward and b) how do you know that’s how your son would’ve responded?”
The thing is, is does seem awkward when you’re looking at it on the page or watching someone else do it, but if you’re in the middle of it it’s completely different. Why? Because if you are the triggered person you are drowning in your own emotions. Normal social rules no longer apply. Remember, you’re in your lizard brain, and social mores are in the prefrontal cortex. When someone recognizes this and speaks to us in emotions rather than in logical thought, we feel an overwhelming sense of relief.
Imagine it. You are experiencing crippling fear. The usual sort of words someone might try to comfort us with are: “everything is going to be okay” or “don’t be afraid.” Neither of these offerings validate our emotions—in fact, they invalidate them.
When we believe our emotions are invalidated, we add isolation and possibly resentment to our original bad feeling, which makes everything worse. But, if our pain is simply named—because we feel understood—it starts to be short-circuited. If I am afraid and someone says to me, “You are afraid,” I feel instantly connected to them, as if they have thrown me an invisible life preserver. I begin to feel that maybe I am not alone, and maybe this fear might not suck me down into the raging depths of my primordial soul.
As I said, though—this technique may be simple, but it isn’t easy. Summoning the strength and fortitude to sit with someone in a dark or aggressive moment without succumbing to our own triggers is tough—at first. Once we become more accustomed to the process, and more skilled at enacting it, it comes to seem (almost) like second nature. One way to become proficient is to follow Douglas Noll’s excellent advice to “ignore the words.” Instead, he says, we should listen to the emotions behind the words.
Example: My teen daughter is late for soccer practice and says she feels sick. She says she can’t eat any breakfast and might have to throw up.
Me: Can you at least drink a little chocolate milk? Is there something else I can get you…maybe scrambled eggs or a banana?
Me: Have you been feeling sick before today?
My husband: Stop babying her! “Oh, can I get you this or this or this to eat?” She needs to just get herself together and go to practice!
Normally I would just yell back because a) I feel embarrassed and suddenly wonder if I really am babying my daughter/being a bad mom, and b) I am angry because my husband is being disrespectful to me in front of her. My yelling would escalate the situation and we would all get lost in our negativity. But, if I can listen to, and state, the emotions behind my husband’s words, and behind my daughter’s mumbling for that matter, things go quite differently.
Me to my daughter: You are scared your coach will be too hard on you, and worried you won’t measure up.
Husband: You are concerned for our daughter, and afraid she isn’t working hard enough to get where you think she needs to be.
Instead of adding fuel to the fire, I’ve begun the process of putting it out. Even if my daughter says nothing, she sees that I have compassion for her, and she also sees that I won’t be sucked into my husband’s childishness. My husband—again, even if he says nothing—feels validated, and thus no longer needs to fight. I’ve set the stage for all of us to do better, and that makes me feel good.
Becoming an observer, naming emotions, and thereby reducing our reactivity may seem counterintuitive. “Won’t people think I’m a pushover?” you may wonder. “Am I giving everyone the green light to behave badly?” Nope.
Others will immediately sense the strength of your position, which is a refusal to engage in conflict. That gives them permission to put down their sword and creates the possibility for peace.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Try this out in your own life. Start with more low-key exchanges where there’s not much at stake. Feel the energy shift as you ignore the words and name emotions. It won’t take long to understand firsthand the power that is built into your magnificent brain.
Share this power with others, lead by example. When we model these behaviors, others quickly catch on.
It is not an overstatement to say that this one small adjustment in our social interactions has the potential to change our lives and maybe even the world. It can give us more of what we’re all really searching for: empowerment, connection, and peace.