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When emotions take over the conversation


When Emotions Take Over the Conversation


So many wonderful advances are being made in neuroscience these days, that it’s hard to keep up with what is relevant to conflict resolution and mediation, but I have found one connection.


Here’s a tip on dealing with highly emotional people from Bill Eddy and his High Conflict Institute.


The left side of the brain is considered the logical, problem solving side, while the right side is more emotional and defensive. When a problem arises the right side of the brain can see life-threatening peril very quickly and go right into flight, fight or freeze. Responses may seem disproportionately emotional to you, but then you do not feel your very life is in danger. At the same time the left side, which focuses on analyzing things and managing emotions, has lost out to the fears perceived by the right side and has pretty much shut down.


Eddy suggests a three-part approach to dealing with difficult dynamics based on these differences.

1.         Focus on developing a positive relationship with the client based on the EAR system: empathy, attention, and respect. Even if you are frustrated and think the client is really over-reacting, remember that the client is in a dreadful state of fear and needs reassurance that you will be there to listen carefully and respectfully to the client’s position. However, be wary of agreeing to statements you may not agree to later, or of becoming trapped in the client’s emotional spiral. Maintain an appropriate distance and neutrality.


2.         Talk to the left side of the brain about making proposals, evaluating them, planning for the future, and having choices. Emphasize the process involved so that the client knows what is coming and how to prepare for it. When the client feels more control over the situation, the fear is reduced and shifting from present fear to future plans can be made. The client has to feel that his or her interests will always be protected during the process, and you can support that feeling by stating your intention to keep the process fair and your position neutral. Be wary of implying that you will take this client’s side and lose your neutrality.


3.         Focus on the choices the client has. Discovering that choices are available can reduce the fear that there is no control over the process or the outcome, and evaluating those choices brings the left brain more strongly into the discussion. Once the left brain is involved, logical thought has a chance to influence the discussion and the outcome.


Using appropriate language is important in reducing the level of emotion and the fear that drives it. Telling someone there’s nothing to be afraid of won’t work when the belief is so strong and so driven by emotion that logic hasn’t a chance. Support the right brain with messages of Empathy, Attention and Respect (EAR) while also using the process to encourage the left brain to join the conversation by evaluating proposals, suggesting alternatives, etc. Focus on understanding and respect as well as choices. Try to eliminate the word “but,” as in, “I understand, but. . .” The meaning is that while you understand, the concern may not be worth considering. Leave out the negative conjunction and create two sentences instead. That way your assurance of understanding isn’t undermined.


Inappropriate language includes reassuring the client of complete success (which just sounds phony) or dismissing concerns, no matter how irrelevant they may seem to you. They are real for the client, and there will be no resolution until these concerns are recognized and respected.


In all mediations, the key dynamic is respect for the needs, interests, and values each party demonstrates. If someone who is very left-brain dominant seems to be taking over the process, then the same statements of respect and attention must still be made. The left brain may not be as emotional as the right brain, but it can be as convinced of and insistent on its position as the right brain can be insistent on its emotions and fears.


Encouraging flexibility and focusing on choices should instill confidence in all parties no matter which side of the brain is dominant. Your neutrality and ability to create a safe environment should help them feel safe enough to find agreement.

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Skillful Communication


At a wonderful program on organizational conflict presented by Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, an organization was described in many different ways:

  • as an idea or concept

  • as a structure for resolving disputes

  • a place where the structure intended to resolve disputes often interferes with that very process.


They suggest that an organization is a conflict resolution system itself, in that it brings people together to solve a conflict or problem among the people who are there. The results of the resolution might affect people outside the organization, but they are not part of the process inside the organization.


In describing organizations, though, one idea stood out for me: the organization as a space “where people can communicate at an emotional level with skill.” In this safe space, they can say what is important at the emotional level, as long as they communicate skillfully.


But what is skillfully?


To me, skillful communications is a two way process including both speaking and listening, which takes into account both information and emotion. In other articles, I’ve written about being a good listener, about turning off the inner argument and focusing on what is being said to hear the information, the underlying emotions, and the implications.


I’ve also suggested several language techniques that will reduce the potential hostility of communications and be more precise in the information it conveys. One example I used was a language pattern that gets around the assumptions and inferences of generalities that might not apply to everyone:

  • I notice . . . (instead of “I assume;” includes a verifiable fact)

  • I imagine . . . (what the observation means to the speaker about the person being observed)

  • I feel . . . (the impact of the observation on the speaker)


Part of being skillful is also using language that is not aggressive, that explains your position without undermining someone else’s or embarrassing that person is some way. Language is just “softer.” One way to reach that goal is to “neutralize” language, to take out all the pronouns, especially “you” and “your,” to reduce the sense of accusation.


Another language pattern I came across recently applies especially to those of us who train or teach, and use exercises as part of the material.


Instead of saying “start” and “stop” and trying to get immediate compliance, the trainer used “begin” and “pause” instead. They’re gentler words and don’t sound like orders. And if people continue to speak after they have been asked to pause, then try “Let what has been said be enough.” Worked like a charm, and no one felt that orders had been given. People are more likely to respond quickly to statements that indicate respect than authority.


I know that shifting gears to gentler language can be difficult. First, it takes effort and patience that we don’t always have, and second, that gentler language often just takes more words, and “efficiency” sometimes rules out more words, which take more time, than are minimally necessary. But “begin” and “pause” don’t take any more time than “start” and “stop,” and somehow they feel better.


Skillful language is, to me, language that is precise so that misunderstandings are avoided, and that helps the other person feel safe enough to be honest, perhaps to say some things that may be difficult to discuss, and yet still feel that you are listening and speaking with utmost respect and attention. Surely that’s a goal we can work toward.

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